Peru scandal showcases need for oversight of lay movements

Peru scandal showcases need for oversight of lay movements

Peru scandal showcases need for oversight of lay movements

Sodalitium Christianae Vitae logo. (Credit: CNA.)

Among other take-aways, the case of Luis Fernando Figari and his Sodalitium Christianae Vitae illustrate the need for lay movements to get the same oversight as dioceses and religious orders.

[Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a three-part series exploring ties between Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz of Chile, a close papal confidante, and Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, who’s now accused of sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience within the prominent lay movement he founded.]

At the beginning of the sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism, the best-known perpetrators were priests whose names quickly became notorious, such as John Geoghan, Lawrence Murphy and Oliver O’Grady, and the burning challenge was establishing detection and disciplinary systems to prevent such predator clergy from going undetected and unpunished.

Two decades later, those goals remain a work in progress, as the recent case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick illustrates. However, where the new systems for vigilance established in the years since work, they’re considered state of the art, and many child protection experts now regard the Catholic Church as a pacesetter.

RELATED: Bishops say pope’s move on McCarrick not the end of the road

Yet Catholicism is not composed entirely of priests and bishops, nor is the Church’s institutional infrastructure entirely defined by clerical organizations, dioceses and religious orders. There’s also a vast galaxy of lay movements and mixed clerical and lay institutes, which, many observers say, haven’t quite reckoned with the implications of the sexual abuse crisis in the same way as other Catholic institutions.

The case of Luis Fernando Figari and his Sodalitium Christianae Vitae illustrates how much work is left to be done in order that the whole Church comes to terms with both the damage that’s been done, and the obligation to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

For many close to the situation, the main takeaways from the SCV crisis include:

  • The problems of abuse and cover-up in Peru are not isolated cases.
  • There’s a need for a more careful vetting process of movements and communities seeking pontifical approval.
  • There’s also a need to find an answer to the question of what to do with movements and communities after a founder has been found guilty of abuse.

It’s not just one case

Several sources stressed that when it comes to Figari, there were clear problems in the way the case was handled, but it’s not unique.

According to Rocio Figueroa, a former high-ranking official of the women’s branch of the SCV, the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), authorities “didn’t really listen to the victims,” but dismissed their claims as attacks against the Church.

“The attitude of these people is to believe more the superiors and founders than the victims,” she said, explaining that part of this is likely due to the fact that in many cases, it was bishops who supported the abusers and helped to advance their role in the local Church.

In most dioceses where an abuser is found, the bishops “are the ones who supported them, they are the ones who didn’t follow them closely, they gave [them] tremendous freedom, they gave them properties, they gave them institutions to manage without enough oversight.”

When it comes to cover-up, she said the problem is hardly limited to Chilean Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, who’s faced multiple accusations from victims in Chile of covering up abuse cases and who has a long-standing supportive relationship with Figari. Errázuriz is also a longtime friend of Pope Francis from the Latin American bishops’ conference and serves on the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers.

Rather, Figueroa says the Figari case illustrates a systemic mentality.

RELATED: Ties between Chilean cardinal, Peruvian founder have deep roots

“It’s the ‘modus operandi’ of the majority of bishops. It’s the general ‘modus operandi’ in the entire Church,” she said. “For me, it’s not ‘Errázuriz, what a mistake!’ It’s all of them.”

In the case of the SCV, most of the blame has been pinned solely on the men’s community. Yet both the women’s branch, the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), and the community of women religious, the Servants of the Plan of God, both established by Figari, also have faced backlash for psychological abuse.

According to Camila Bustamante, a Chilean journalist who at one time discerned entering the Servants’ community and who has published reports on their abuses, all of the different branches formed by Figari are guilty of the same psychological abuses and manipulation.

Inside the Servants’ community, “there were many situations of psychological abuse,” she said, noting that many of the young women who joined “were given things that seemed normal,” however, intimate settings such as spiritual direction were places where “trust was abused” and where members “exposed absolutely everything to their [spiritual] counselor and accepted to do everything they told you.”

Whether it was a mandate to wear only certain types of clothing, or the people the candidates took on as friends, “we were completely willing to do what they told us, and we believed that it was the right thing.”

The need for a new system

For Figueroa, part of the issue is rooted in a wider problem that goes back to how groups and movements such as the SCV are approved.

Citing her time working as head of the women’s section for the Vatican’s former Council for the Laity from 2006-2009, Figueroa said that in her experience, procedures for obtaining pontifical approval for a community or a movement were extremely relaxed.

At the time, “you gave your little paper, and if your papers had everything, they approved you.”

“They approved movements like candy. It was crazy,” she said, noting that apart from the SCV, there are at least 12 other priests and founders of other groups being investigated for similar abuses.

Things appear even more lax for groups that exist on a diocesan or parish level, without pontifical approval.

One such case documented by Crux is that of layman Piero Alfio Capuana, 73, known by his followers as “the Archangel,” who founded a lay Catholic association in Sicily called “Catholic Culture and Environment Association,” or ACCA, and who has been charged with sexually abusing at least six underage girls. The founder has already done time in prison and is currently awaiting trial.

RELATED: Diocese had warnings about lay group accused of abuse for 40-plus years

The reason why movements and communities such as the SCV got the green light so easily, the source from the women’s branch of the SCV said, was because they were smart, they appeared to be orthodox and they followed the pope, “but the internal life was something different.”

In the case of the SCV, abuses were happening inside the community as far back as the 1970s, long before they received pontifical approval, which would not have been given if the abuses had been made public.

What to do going forward

Observers say that going forward, Church authorities may need to consider a more rigorous vetting process for granting approval for lay groups, and also tighter monitoring once those groups are established. Further, there may also be a need to establish a clear reporting system for when abuse does occur.

There’s also the question of how to reform a community once abuse has been exposed and the perpetrators have been removed from the equation.

Figueroa said that in her view, there is no “easy answer,” because in many cases the communities have members who have given their lives to the Church, and who have served for 20, 30 or even 40 years inside of the organization, making the thought of leaving crippling, if not impossible.

“It is so complicated. I’m not in favor of, ‘okay let’s close everything!’” she said. “We have to be realistic [because] we are talking about people, about lives. They aren’t records.”

“In some years, who knows. Maybe a charismatic leader will come who can guide them,” she said, referring to the SCV, but for now, “I don’t see a clear solution.”

Another complex part of the equation, in her opinion, is how the Church chooses to act once the scandals hit. In many cases, she said, “the Church doesn’t intervene in a good way,” causing further complication, such as the SCV.

All sources voiced concern for how the case of the SCV is being handled, in part due to the fact that the man tapped to oversee the group and guide them through their internal re-structuring, Colombian Bishop Noel Antonio Londoño, lives in another country.

An ex-member of the SCV who lived in Chile said it’s harder because the bishop “doesn’t live in Peru. He’s Colombian, he’s stuck in Latin American culture,” making it more difficult to manage the reform.

The source said that in his opinion, he would like to see Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who was the Vatican’s chief sex abuse prosecutor under Pope Benedict XVI and who also conducted an extensive investigation in Chile for Pope Francis, come to Peru to investigate the SCV crisis.

“Scicluna was there for five to seven days in Chile, three of which he was in the hospital, and in seven days he did a report that was [more than] 2,000 pages,” he said, noting that in the time that the SCV crisis has been public, far less headway has been made.

(The Chilean crisis has been unfolding since 2011, meaning there was a significant delay between the initial reports and the Vatican’s comparatively rapid response beginning in early 2018.)

Though several reports have been released from different commissions and victims compensated, and although both Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, tapped by Francis to look into the SCV, and Londoño have traveled to Lima, for any real progress to happen, more needs to be done, he said.

Someone must be sent to do a more in-depth investigation, he said, “like they did in Chile.”

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