ROME – Paola Ugaz, an investigative journalist and co-author of the blockbuster book Half Monks, Half Soldiers, that details years of abuse inside the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), is the second journalist to be sued by Archbishop José Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, a member of the group, on charges of defamation.
Ugaz received the complaint, filed before the Fifth Single-Judge Criminal Court and liquidator of the Superior Court of Justice of Piura, at her home in Lima, charging her with defamation and asking that she pay a fine of more than $60,000 dollars and spend three years in jail.
Nearly three months ago, on July 31, Pedro Salinas, a former SCV member and a co-author of the book, was served by the archbishop with similar charges and asked to pay the same fine and serve jail time. The complaint followed the publication by Salinas of a series of articles and interviews making various accusations against Eguren Anselmi, which he refused to retract when asked to do so by the archbishop.
In comments to Crux, the Archdiocese of Piura said they are handling the case against Ugaz in the same way as the case against Salinas, which is to “leave it in the hands of justice.”
Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, founder of the SCV, is currently awaiting the ruling of a second appeal after being sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 for physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
In addition to the fines and request of jail time, Ugaz is facing three charges of defamation, the first of which involves her coverage of a lawsuit filed by Salinas and four other ex-members of the SCV – Óscar Osterling, brothers Martín and Vicente López de Romaña and José Enrique Escardó – for various abuses during their time in the community, though none of them suffered sexual abuse.
The second charge is over her role as producer of a documentary broadcast by Al-Jazeera called “The Sodalitium Scandal,” in which Eguren Anselmi was named as being part of an alleged land trafficking scandal in Piura linked to a criminal organization called La Gran Cruz, and the third is over seven tweets she sent during Pope Francis’s visit to Peru in January, documenting his history with the SCV and allegations that as a member of Figari’s inner circle in the early days of the SCV he knew about the founder’s abuses and covered them up.
One of the tweets read that Eguren Anselmi, who offered the formal public greeting for Francis at his meeting with priests, religious and seminarians during the pope’s visit to Peru, was part of “the top of the Sodalitium” and was accused of “land trafficking in Piura and cover-up of the sexual and physical abuses inside of the Catholic organization.”
In comments to Crux, Ugaz said the first complaint about the legal case against Eguren Anselmi is “inexplicable,” because she has no involvement in the case whatsoever, except that “I expressed my solidarity with them.”
On the second charge involving the documentary, Ugaz said she had been part of a team working in Qatar and Lima, and that as journalists, they had asked the archbishop “several times to answer and be in the documentary,” however, he declined.
“He appears on the documentary refusing to be on an interview and we sent several emails and phone calls to his press officer in the archbishop of Piura,” but to no avail, she said. No one else from the documentary crew has faced charges.
Regarding the third charge, accusing her of “seven occasions” of defamation related to her tweets, Ugaz argued that as an investigative journalist, she has been looking into the SCV for eight years, and Eguren Anselmi’s history is of public interest, given the prominent role he played in giving one of the welcoming speeches during the pope’s visit to Peru.
“Eguren was an important part of the foundational group of the Sodalitium, and we have some testimonies that he knew about the abuses when he lived in the communities,” she said, noting that another journalist and former member of the SCV, José Enrique Escardó, was the first to raise complaints against Eguren Anselmi in 2000, when he began publishing a series of blog entries about his experience in the group.
Among other things, Escardó named Eguren Anselmi as “an author of psychological and physical abuse,” Ugaz said, yet he has not been targeted. “Why didn’t Eguren say anything about the Escardó case?”
In addition to Salinas and Ugaz, Eguren Anselmi in August also sent a notarized letter to another former member of the SCV, Martin Scheuch, who on Aug. 13 published an article titled Mons. Eguren, la fachada risueña del Sodalicio, meaning, “Monsignor Eguren, the smiling façade of the Sodalitium.”
In the article, Scheuch recounted how during his time in the SCV, he saw Eguren participate in the physical and psychological abuse of members of the community, contributing, as he said, “to implementing and applying the measures of mental submission that are part of the Sodalit system of discipline.”
As one example, Scheuch said that in December 1992 his superiors decided to “isolate me indefinitely” in a room apart from the rest of the community, answering only to Eguren. When he awoke after falling asleep one night, Eguren had moved all of his belongings to the room where he was forced to stay for seven months, during which he experienced “anguished desires to die,” until he escaped through a window.
Scheuch also cites another example when one of the top members of the community, Virgilio Levaggi, made one of the younger men mix ketchup, salt and pepper into his dessert and eat it in front of everyone. Not only did Eguren help to make the concoction, but, according to Scheuch, he “applauded” the scene and made “mocking comments.”
In the notarized letter sent to Scheuch, published on Peruvian news site Alta Voz, Aug. 24, Eguren asked him to rectify the information in the article, saying “you make a series of affirmations without any further evidence other than your word.”
Eguren also argued against the charge that he was part of the top tier membership of the SCV, saying the allegations in the article “fall in the area of subjectivity.”
“Without detracting from the emotional and psychological repercussions that may have caused you and the people who may have suffered acts of abuse, these acts cannot be attributed to me from subjectivity,” Eguren said in the letter.
Eguren noted how he celebrated Scheuch’s wedding after he left the SCV in 1996, saying that until the Aug. 13 article, Scheuch had “never expressed your criticism to me, nor contacted me personally about them.”
After making the charges against Salinas in July, Eguren Anselmi traveled to Rome for a Sept. 17 audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
At the time, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the appointment, which appeared on the official list of papal appointments published daily by the Vatican Press Office, was “private,” and as such, he could not confirm any details of what had been discussed.
However, in comments to Crux, Chilean abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, an outspoken critic of the defrocked abuser Fernando Karadima, said one of the main reasons for Eguren Anselmi’s visit to the Vatican was to ask the pope for a “certificate of cleanliness,” saying he was free from accusations.
Cruz traveled to Peru in July to meet members of congress investigating Figari and to participate in a conversation about the “San Bartolo” theater project, which Salinas is involved with and which was inspired by events in the SCV scandals.
While he was there, Cruz made comments to local media saying he had information “that an accusation has been sent to the Vatican about abuse committed by a prominent member of the Peruvian episcopate.”
According to Cruz, Eguren Anselmi made specific mention of that comment to the pope, and asked the Holy See to produce a certificate saying he was not the prelate in question and that there were no accusations against him in the Vatican.
The request was denied, Cruz said, adding, “the Church doesn’t do this with anyone,” and neither did they do it for Eguren Anselmi.
In comments to Crux, the Archdiocese of Piura denied Cruz’s statement on the nature of Eguren Anselmi’s meeting with the pope, saying the topic of the certificate “was never touched on,” and stressed that the archbishop “does not have any complaint against him in Rome.”
On the lawsuits, Cruz told Crux that “the worst thing” Eguren Anselmi can do is to “go against victims.”