[Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.]
Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, currently awaiting a ruling on his second appeal to the Vatican after being sanctioned in 2017 for sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience, has a long history of close ties to a Chilean prelate at the center of one of the Church’s biggest clerical sexual abuse crises in recent history.
Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz Ossa, who served as archbishop of the national capital from 1998-2010 and was the dominant figure on the country’s Catholic scene, has increasingly been in the spotlight as the Chilean abuse crisis unfolds. He faces mounting accusations of cover-up, most notably for notorious abuser priest, Fernando Karadima, and many victims have called for him to stand trial.
However, the record shows that not only does Errázuriz have ties to Karadima, he also has a relationship with Figari that goes back at least two decades.
Sources with knowledge of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, the movement founded by Figari, emphasize that Errázuriz was not its biggest backer in the Latin American hierarchy, nor was he responsible for the movement’s early growth. That occurred, they say, under the patronage of two other Latin American heavyweights, both now deceased – Cardinals Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia and Eugênio de Araújo Sales of Brazil.
Even then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the future Pope Francis, those sources say, in some ways was more enthusiastic than Errázuriz. At one stage, Bergoglio donated a piece of property outside Buenos Aires to the community for five years to use as a base of operations in the country.
Nevertheless, Errázuriz was instrumental to the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, both in terms of securing papal approval for the community and in promoting its expansion in his own country.
Figari and the birth of a movement
Born in Lima in 1947, Figari is the founder of a men’s lay community, the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV); a women’s lay community, the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR); a community of women religious, the Servants of the Plan of God; and an ecclesial movement, called the “Christian Life Movement,” all of which share the same spirituality.
Figari studied humanities and law in university, and he led various clubs and associations. He established the SCV, a Catholic society of apostolic life, in 1971.
In 1984 he offered a “Catechesis on Love” at the first World Youth Day, held at Rome’s Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. In 2002, he was named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity by St. Pope John Paul II, and in 2005 he was named a lay auditor to the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. He served in subsequent consultative roles at the Vatican.
Similar to Karadima, Figari’s community was charismatic and attracted swaths of vocations, with the main appeal being an emphasis on a life of strict asceticism, intellectual formation and spiritual combat, believing their call was to fight as elite soldiers in God’s army.
However, Figari stepped down as superior general of the SCV for alleged health reasons in 2010, though by then allegations of abuse had already begun to surface in Peru.
In 2011, three different people – who have identified themselves as “Santiago,” “Lucas” and “Juan” – came forward to the ecclesiastical tribunal in the Archdiocese of Lima, headed by Father Víctor Huapaya Quispe, a member of Opus Dei, saying in written testimonies they had been sexually abused by Figari as minors. Though Huapaya promised at least one of the victims that the allegations would be investigated, that person has yet to receive a response.
The allegations allegedly made their way to the Vatican, and when representatives from the SCV came to the Vatican to check on the progress of Figari’s case in 2012, they were told that no wrongdoing had been found.
Sources close to the situation have said that after that encounter in 2012, Errázuriz had defended the Peruvian founder, arguing that he was innocent and that the case was different than that of the Legion of Christ, whose priestly founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2006 after being found guilty of sexually abusing minors and fathering children with multiple women.
A full investigation into the complaints against Figari was not opened until 2015, around the same time a book titled Half Monks, Half Soldiers was published by journalists Paola Ugaz and Pedro Salinas, a former member of the community, chronicling years of alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse by members of the SCV.
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In February 2017, a commission established by the SCV said in a report that “Figari sexually assaulted at least one child; manipulated, sexually abused, or harmed several other young people; and physically or psychologically abused dozens of others.”
The report ultimately concluded that between 1975 and 2000, and once in 2007, “five members of [the] Sodalitium, including Figari, sexually abused minors.”
That same month, the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life issued a decree forbidding Figari from any contact with the religious community and banning him from returning to Peru without permission from the current superior of the SCV, Alessandro Moroni Llabrés. Figari was also forbidden to make any public statements.
Figari launched an appeal, which was rejected by the Vatican Jan. 31. The founder then launched a second appeal, which is also expected to be struck down.
Figari is also facing civil charges in Peru, and in December 2017 Peruvian prosecutors requested by court order that he be temporarily jailed along with several former authorities in the SCV while a civil investigation into sexual and psychological abuse and cover-up continues to move forward.
However, the request was reportedly delayed due to a procedural requirement of notifying the defendants, some of whom live abroad, including Figari, who is now housed on the outskirts of Rome.
In January, Pope Francis tapped Colombian Bishop Noel Antonio Londoño Buitrago as commissioner for the SCV, meaning he has taken the reins as a sort of superior general and has been tasked with overseeing and guiding the SCV through a process of reform.
Errázuriz and Figari go way back
The connection between Errázuriz and Figari dates back to the 1990s, given that the SCV received pontifical approval in 1997. At the time, Errázuriz was the Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious [he held the post from 1990-1998], meaning the SCV’s application and documentation at some point would have been on his desk. In his role, Errázuriz was a key player in handling the SCV’s pontifical approval.
When Errázuriz was named Archbishop of Santiago, he wasted no time in getting Figari’s community to join him in Chile. He was installed in May 1998, and the first SCV community house was opened in the archdiocese in January 1999, just shy of a year after Errázuriz took office.
The first Sodalit community in Chile – a group of four men including Moroni – arrived that year and immediately, meaning the day after, began working at the “Apoquindo” school in Santiago, now the “Mayflower,” which was attended by children of some of the most influential families in Santiago, including relatives of Errázuriz.
The SCV was given charge over a chapel attached to one of the largest parishes in Santiago, located in Maipú, and they were also offered a plot of land to build their own church, community house and pastoral center.
When the pastoral center was opened, the SCV began leading groups for youth, and a slew of young men from wealthy and influential families ended up joining both the Sodalitium community and other projects led by the Christian Life Movement.
According to an ex-Sodalit who lived in the Santiago community in the early 2000s, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Errázuriz also had nieces and nephews who attended the Santiago school where members of the SCV taught, and at least one nephew took a keen interest in the group.
One of the Errázuriz brothers, Eduardo, was a wealthy businessman in Chile, this source said, explaining that the man’s son, Jose Tomas, had attended the school where the Sodalits taught and was on the verge of making an official, year-long “aspirant” promise of discernment with the SCV, but in the end did not. This nephew was known to be a Figari favorite and would meet with the founder when he was in town.
Errázuriz, the source said, was well aware of the interest his nephew had in the group, and he knew that Moroni had been making efforts to recruit his nephew at the time, even though the boy never joined.
At one point, to mark the 10th anniversary of the group’s arrival in Chile, Errázuriz also donated property to the SCV, giving them a large beach-side home in Las Cruces with 6-7 bedrooms and a waterfront view of the South Pacific.
(A source close to the SCV, however, described that property as “a wooden shack in a rundown sea town outside of Valparaiso, on the seashore of Chile,” and said, “the community has barely been able to use it in any significant way.”)
Camila Bustamante, a Chilean journalist who met the SCV in 2000 when preparing for her First Communion, and who ended up leading youth projects for the group as a teen, said the property was given on the condition that “it function as something pastoral,” but this type of gift was not common.
In addition to his relationship with the SCV on his home turf, Errázuriz also made visits to SCV communities while traveling to Peru. According to a second ex-Sodalit who lived in Chile only briefly, during visits to Lima, the cardinal, on occasion, would stay overnight at the community house in the Camacho neighborhood, where the SCV’s main parish, Our Lady of Reconciliation, is located.
Errázuriz and the SCV also shared strong spiritual ties. As the community had no priest for the first few years after they arrived in Chile, they attended Mass at a nearby Carmelite parish every day apart from Wednesdays. On those days, Errázuriz’s personal secretary would come to celebrate Mass inside the community’s chapel and hear their confessions. Afterward, he would stay for breakfast before heading back to the cardinal’s house.
The first ex-member of the SCV lived in Chile longer, who was sent to Chile on a personal mandate from a Sodalit by the name of German Doig, who died in 2001 and was also found guilty of sexual abuse, said Figari and Errázuriz were in consistent contact through email and phone conversations, as well as personal visits whenever Figari would come to Santiago, often bringing gifts for the cardinal.
He said Errázuriz would never visit the community himself, but it was always Figari who went to the cardinal’s house. However, after retiring in 2010, Errázuriz visited the SCV house in Santiago a number of times, at least twice between 2013-2014.
Of all the SCV communities, Chile was a Figari favorite, the source said, explaining that “Luis Fernando went a couple of times a year, but always for long periods of time – two, three, four, five weeks – a month and a half in total. [These were] things that didn’t happen with any other foundation, or they happened in Rome.”
“Luis Fernando liked Chile a lot, and he liked Rome. He always came to these communities.”
One of the things Figari did in Chile that he did not do elsewhere, the source said, was drive around town with a select group of young men involved in their projects, “with one of them being the chauffeur.” And one of these young men, he said, “was the nephew of Cardinal Errázuriz.”
Jose Rey del Castro, a former member of the SCV, said the reason the founder preferred Chile was because of “the comforts,” as the community house was situated in an upper middle-class neighborhood.
Figari, he said, liked to be around white people and those from the upper class, which in Chile is mostly Catholic. He also liked being able to walk around the streets without people knowing who he was, and he preferred to spend his time with people who had certain levels of “power and influence,” Castro said.
Despite the friendly bond over the years, sources say Errázuriz and Figari were not in lockstep over everything. For example, Errázuriz, as then-president of of the Latin American bishops’ conference, pushed for a fifth General Conference in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, and got the approval by Pope Benedict XVI. Figari was “utterly opposed”, a SCV source said, since he was happy with the more “conservative” conclusions of the previous summit that took place in 1992 in Santo Domingo.
“He fought Errázuriz at every turn,” this source said.
Despite those clashes, even after Figari had been sent to Rome and the accusations against him were made public, Errázuriz maintained ties – among other things, making several personal visits to Figari while he was under investigation. Figari also has been visited by several other important Catholic personalities, including American Cardinal James Francis Stafford and Italian layman Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Sources also say that ties between Errázuriz and the current leadership of the SCV have been strained by disagreements over Figari’s fate. The leadership wants him expelled, while Errázuriz believes he should remain in the community and be cared for during whatever remains of his life.
Bustamante, who wrote a lengthy article for Chilean paper El Mostrador illustrating the connections between Figari and Errázuriz in 2017 which mentioned the visits he made to founder in Rome, said she received a letter from Errázuriz the day after her article was published that put distance between him and Figari, and which he asked be published in full in the same paper.
In the letter, Errázuriz said that despite contrary reports by Peruvian paper El Comercio, he never told the publication that he was an “old friend” of Figari.
The cardinal insisted that his task as secretary of the Vatican’s congregation for religious was to help founders establish the correct canonical approval “so that the charism God gave to their foundation would be recognized and give fruit to the Church and to society.”
He said he worked alongside many other founders in addition to Figari, and that he was “surprised” when the accusations were raised in Peru. He also denied accusations that he has used his position and influence in the Church to “soften” Figari’s sentence.
King of deception
Rocio Figueroa, who was the first superior general – at the time called the “general coordinator” for the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), the women’s branch of the SCV, but who has since left, said she does not think Errázuriz was fully aware of Figari’s abuses before they went public, because “the Sodalits were deceptive geniuses.”
“Luis Fernando is the king of knowing how to deceive,” she said, calling Figari “a psychopath…and psychopathic people are also experts in deception.”
Figueroa – who was one of the first to speak out about Figari’s abuses and who from 2006-2009 served as head of the women’s section for the Vatican’s former Council for the Laity – said that on the outside, the SCV “had everything a conservative wanted: they were faithful to the pope [and] very rigidly orthodox,” so there was “no way of understanding what was happening inside.”
The case of Karadima in Chile, she said, is different, because the victims “went to Errázuriz a ton of times. So he simply didn’t believe them, or didn’t want to believe them, or he believed them and wanted to discount them.”
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Protecting abusers and attacking their victims is “the ‘modus operandi’ of these people,” she said, and in Chile “even more so,” since the scandal implicated people who held a considerable amount of power, such as Karadima, who himself came from a wealthy family that mixed in the same social circles as the Errázuriz family.
According to the first ex-Sodalit who lived in Chile longer, despite the frequent contact Errázuriz had with Figari, it would have been hard for anyone outside of Peru to know exactly what the internal culture of the SCV was like, since most of the serious abuses took place in Peru, whereas the Chilean case with Karadima was in the cardinal’s own backyard.
Sources within the SCV have said that Errázuriz, in visiting Figari in Rome, had expressed wanting to do so out of charity, and that while he did not offer a specific defense of Figari or claim the founder’s innocence in their presence, he was well aware of the severity of the accusations, and was concerned that the process against him be just.
Although there have been no instances of public support of Figari by Errázuriz since the founder was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017, there have been multiple anecdotal accounts from other people of Errázuriz defending Figari in intimate settings since the accusations first went public in 2015.
Some members of the SCV report having heard from people close to Errázuriz that the cardinal directly defended Figari, and that his defense was adamant.
Part three of this series presents various views on lessons to be learned from the Errázuriz saga.