ROME – Top Vatican investigators began holding interviews in Peru Tuesday as part of their inquiry into a scandal-plagued lay group, whose founder has been sanctioned for various abuses and barred from contacting the group.
The Peruvian Bishops’ Conference formally announced the arrival of Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, which had previously been reported by Crux, to investigate the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV) on Saturday, July 22.
Both Scicluna and Bertomeu are officials of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles allegations of clerical abuse. Their track record also includes the high-profile investigation into the Legionaries of Christ and its founder, the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado; the explosive clerical sexual abuse scandals in Chile; as well as abuse crises in countless other countries across the world.
A Society of Apostolic Life and the largest ecclesial lay movement in Peru, the SCV was founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in 1971.
Though allegations were made several years prior, scandals involving the SCV exploded in 2015, when Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz published their blockbuster book Half Monks, Half Soldiers chronicling years of alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse by members of the SCV. Salinas himself is a former member of the SCV.
Figari himself was accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses within the community, including against minors. He was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group, and he is currently living in exile.
In his July 22 statement, Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, president of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference, said Scicluna and Bertomeu were coming “to investigate, listen, and present a report on the case of the Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana in our country.”
“I think it is excellent that this matter will be investigated in-depth, that the people involved are listened to and I am sure that the report will be fair and objective for the good of all,” he said.
Sources with knowledge of the visit have told Crux that a special committee will be formed to evaluate various points, including the possible dissolution of the community and what that would involve.
Scicluna and Bertomeu began holding interviews as part of their inquiry into the SCV at the apostolic nunciature in Peru on Tuesday.
Both Salinas and Ugaz met with the duo Tuesday morning, each spending several hours in conversation.
Ugaz, who is currently working on a second book detailing SCV finances and alleged financial misconduct, has received an onslaught of legal complaints for defamation and other allegations made by individuals and groups with ties to the SCV.
One of those complaints, which was later retracted, came from Peruvian Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi, a longstanding top member of the SCV.
Ugaz met Pope Francis at the Vatican in November 2022.
In a series of Tweets following his meeting with Scicluna and Bertomeu, Salinas referred to them as “the Van Helsings of clerical pedophilia,” saying, “I don’t know what will happen, but I left the meeting with the envoys of Pope Francis more than satisfied.”
(The reference is to a popular television series about a vampire hunter based upon Professor Van Helsing in the gothic novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.)
Salinas tweeted a photo of himself with Scicluna from 2019, when he was invited by the Maltese archbishop to a major summit on child protection organized by Pope Francis in Rome, saying that already in 2019 Scicluna “showed empathy and concern for what was happening in Peru with the Sodalit case.”
“Having him on a mission in Peru is something incredible,” Salinas said.
Ugaz in tweets of her own recalled her meeting with Pope Francis last November, saying that eight months later, the pope “sent the mission that will investigate the Sodalicio.”
She described her conversation with Scicluna and Bertomeu as “great and endearing,” noting that “this amazing story with [Pedro Salinas] started in 2010 and we’re still here. Long live journalism in Peru.”
Scicluna and Bertomeu on Tuesday also met with victims of the SCV and Peruvian Congresswoman Susel Paredes, who worked on the so-called “Belaunde report,” the product of an investigation conducted by the Investigatory Commission on the Sexual Abuse of Minors in Organizations, which was launched by Peruvian Congressman Alberto Belaunde, but fell off the radar until Paredes resuscitated it. The final report was published earlier this month.
In a Tweet following her meeting with Scicluna and Bertomeu, Paredes said, “In November 2022 I rescued the report on sexual aggressions within the Sodalicio from the congressional archives. I sent copies to the Vatican. Today, a mission is in Lima to investigate the facts. Truth breaks through. No more silence or impunity.”
“I will continue to push for the Belaunde report to see the light, for justice to be done, and for the victims to receive reparation,” she said.
Cabrejos himself is scheduled to meet with Scicluna and Bertomeu Wednesday, July 26, for his own interview.
Also on Tuesday, the same day that Scicluna and Bertomeu began interviews, Peruvian lawyer Carlos Rivera Paz, who is assisting Ugaz with the various legal complaints against her, announced via Twitter that the Peruvian prosecutors office had archived an investigation of money laundering.
The case was launched in 2021 by Luciano Revoredo, a Peruvian businessman who has close ties to the SCV and who had previously accused Ugaz of money laundering and bribery. Yesterday Rivera announced that the prosecutor’s office archived the case, declaring that there was no basis for the allegations.
He quoted the decree from the prosecutor’s office, which stated that the case was “distorted, since the complainant’s statement lacks subjective credibility,” citing longstanding conflicts between Ugaz and Revoredo.
“In this particular case, there are no elements of conviction that corroborate peripherally and that objectively prove that the investigative party has participated in acts that constitute the crime of money laundering,” the decree said, saying Revoredo’s statement “does not have guarantees of certainty” and lacks credibility.
The lawyers assisting a group of victims of the SCV, who have filed two separate legal complaints against Figari and other high-ranking members and former members, also issued a statement Tuesday condemning the decision to have the provincial prosecutor overseeing the second of the two cases removed.
The first complaint of the SCV victims, launched against Figari and other top-ranking members of the group, was made in October 2015, shortly after Half Monks, Half Soldiers was published, for sexual abuse of minors. A second complaint was filed in May 2016 for physical, sexual, and psychological abuses, indoctrination or mental “kidnapping,” and illicit business practices.
In 2017, the first case was archived due to a statute of limitations, and on grounds that the legal deadline by which to complete the preliminary investigation had passed.
The second case continued to move forward, however, in August 2021, lawyers representing Figari and other top SCV members submitted a formal request to the Peruvian Judiciary to close the case, which had been sent to the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime over the illicit business activities charge.
At the time, Eduardo Castañeda, the provincial prosecutor attached to the case, argued that the case ought to move forward.
However, in their statement Tuesday, the lawyers representing the SCV victims said that Figari’s legal team had successfully had Castañeda removed from the case, and that he was replaced by Deputy Provincial Prosecutor for Organized Crime Karen Yeremy Mercado Gutierrez.
Castañeda, according to the statement, had previously described the SCV as a sect and took the position that recruiting members fell under the crime of fraud for using coercive techniques of persuasion and an ‘undue use of religion,’ as well as the victims’ confidence in faith.
On June 21, 2023, Mercado ruled to archive the case, a decision the victims’ lawyers said is one that “seriously violates the victims’ right of access to justice, as well as the right to the truth that benefits them and all of society.”
They have filed an appeal of the decision to archive the case, calling the move “express ignorance of the obligations of Peruvian justice to duly investigate facts that constitute human rights violations.”
Should the case in fact be archived, as the lone remaining civil case against Figari and other members of the SCV, it would mean that neither Figari nor other members of the group would face any civil charges.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen