ROME — A top papal aide said on Thursday that Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to Chile and Peru next week would not be “simple,” in what may qualify as an early candidate for the understatement of 2018.
Among many other challenges awaiting the pontiff, he’ll have to face the fallout of sexual abuse scandals in both traditionally Catholic nations that have divided and demoralized the rank and file, stained the Church’s public image, and even brought criticism of Francis himself for the way he’s responded.
In Peru, the story begins with a layman named Luis Fernando Figari, founder and former superior general of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), back in 1971. Unknown to many in the Catholic Church, he’s now being compared to the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, and Chilean Father Fernando Karadima, who led a once-upon-a-time impressive lay movement from his parish in El Bosque, Chile.
The three have many things in common. They’re from Spanish-speaking Latin America, and they’re founders of highly orthodox movements focused on the laity and known for their evangelizing zeal. All three also came out of the anti-Communist, anti-liberation theology wing of the Latin American Church.
Maciel died in 2008, two years after being sanctioned by the Vatican to a life of prayer and penance, banned from public ministry. He had been found guilty of sexual abuse of minors and sexual misconduct, having fathered three children.
Figari and Karadima, however, are still around, as is the anger left behind by the scandals surrounding them and their collaborators.
A new report published Thursday suggests Francis is aware of the tumult in Chile.
The Associated Press broke a story on a previously unknown 2015 letter written by Francis to the Chilean bishops’ conference, which came after the pontiff had transferred Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid, a close ally of Karadima, from the country’s military chaplaincy to a southern diocese. That decision caused uproar, both within the local church and among victims.
“I’m aware that the situation of the church in Chile is difficult due to the trials you’ve had to undergo,” the letter says, according to the AP report.
In Peru, the abuse came from a layman
Similar allegations now hang over Figari, but as a layman, his case is harder for the Vatican to address. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with cases of clerical sexual abuse, can’t “defrock” a lay person nor sentence him to a life of penitence and prayer.
A Church official acknowledged in 2016 that the Vatican had taken years to act.
The SCV, or “Sodalitium” as it’s known in Peru, was investigated both as part of an internal process and by the Vatican. Allegations of not only physical but also verbal abuse go beyond the crimes of Figari, who in 2016 insisted he’s innocent.
The movement says it doesn’t have jurisdiction to expel Figari, only the Vatican can do so. The group acknowledged having asked for this in April 2016. Yet since Figari is considered the founder of a group with a legitimate spiritual inspiration, he’s only been forbidden from contacting members of the movement.
Alessandro Moroni Llabres, the superior general of the SCV, said in 2016: “We consider Luis Fernando Figari guilty of the abuses of which he is accused and declare him persona non grata for our organization, which totally deplores and condemns his behavior.”
On Wednesday, the Vatican announced it was taking over the lay movement, naming a Colombian bishop as the “commissioner” of the SCV and keeping Cardinal Joseph William Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, in his role as papal delegate for the organization.
The Vatican announcement came weeks after Peruvian prosecutors announced they were seeking Figari’s arrest.
The SCV is governed by a group of celibate laymen known as “sodalits,” and there are some 20,000 members and chapters throughout South America and the United States.
In February of 2017, the SCV released the first of two reports the current superior general ordered, titled “Abuses Perpetrated by Mr. Luis Fernando Figari, and the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Former Sodalits.”
“It is clear that Figari sexually abused at least one minor male, sexually abused or sexually manipulated several other young men, and physically or psychologically abused dozens of others,” the report says.
Of no legal or canonical value, the report also alleges that Figari sexually manipulated several young men. At times, it says, the abuse and manipulation took place under the auspices of spiritual advice, and he’s accused of telling victims that the acts “were part of his mystical powers.”
Written by two Americans and an Irish expert in abuse, the report defines Figari as a charismatic intellectual, who was “narcissistic, paranoid, demeaning, vulgar, vindictive, manipulative, racist, sexist, elitist and obsessed with sexual issues and the sexual orientation of SCV members.”
Figari’s Sodalit spirituality branched out beyond the Soldalitium with two other movements of consecrated life, one for lay women and one for religious sisters, and the Christian Life Movement. Those groups too have faced accusations of abuse.
A lay woman and former member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation agreed to speak with Crux on the condition of anonymity because many in her family don’t know the extent of her experience.
Having been told by her spiritual directors and formators that she was “proud, vain, selfish, lazy, subjective and narcissistic, and that I childishly made excuses and tried to get out of things God was asking but that were hard or that I didn’t like,” she said she was often pushed beyond her limits.
For instance, she said, at one point she was ordered to run so hard that she wet herself. When she told her superiors about it, she was told that she’s supposed to know her limits.
“I suddenly found myself in a constant state of anxiety and began to struggle with feelings of depression and despair, which was very uncharacteristic of me,” she said. “I personally know many girls who entered community very happy and left a few years later ill, depressed and confused.”
There are other cases of young women who committed suicide or attempted to take their lives while living with the Fraternas, such as Colombian Fraterna Sara Cobaleda, who reportedly attempted suicide while in community, and later took her life when she was sent home.
Yet, Crux’s source insists, not everything was bad.
“There was so much that was beautiful that I don’t want to be lost,” she said. “Despite the difficulties and negative experiences that in my view came from a flawed mentality based on a deeply flawed formation implemented by an abusive and duplicitous founder, God was still able to work, and he did so in my life and in the lives of many others.”
Speaking about the Vatican’s announcement, she found it to be “hopeful,” but “it feels like it was too little, too late.”
The Chilean case
Karadima was found guilty of sexually abusing minors in 2011, and, like Maciel, he was sentenced to a life of prayer and penance. Yet his footprint is still visible in the Chilean Catholic hierarchy: three of today’s bishops were close to the abusive priest, and when the allegations surfaced, they sent a letter to the Vatican defending their mentor.
In 2015, Francis appointed one of those prelates, Barros, to the small southern diocese of Osorno, transferring him from the military chaplaincy. The move spurred protests across the region and beyond.
Abuse survivor Marie Collins, who was a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors until she resigned in early 2017, criticized the appointment. In April 2015, along with three other members of the Commission, she met with Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, head of the commission, in an effort to have the pope’s nomination of Barros reversed.
Instead, the Argentine pontiff was filmed in St. Peter’s Square by a former spokesman of the Chilean bishops’ conference going after those voicing objections. Francis is heard telling the man, Jaime Coiro, that the local Church had “lost its head” by allowing a group of politicians to judge a bishop “with no proof whatsoever.”
Francis also said that they were being “led around by the nose” by “leftists who are the ones who put this [opposition] together.”
Collins reacted to the video through Twitter, saying that she was “saddened and disappointed” by it. Later that same day, Oct. 3 2015, she tweeted:
What a waste that trip to Rome re Barros was, when you see the claims of Karadima’s courageous victims categorised in this way
— Marie Collins (@marielco) October 3, 2015
The bishop was installed in March 2015, with a Mass to mark the occasion. While Barros was celebrating, many kept screaming “Pedophile!” and “Get out!” The celebration had to be cut short.
In the Jan. 31, 2015, letter reported on in Thursday’s AP story, written in response to complaints about the Barros’ appointment, Francis acknowledged that he knew the transfer was controversial.
“Thank you for having openly demonstrated the concern that you have about the appointment of Monsignor Juan Barros,” Francis wrote in the letter, addressed to the executive committee of the Chilean bishops’ conference.
He said his representative in Chile, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, earlier had asked three bishops who supported Karadima, including Barros, to resign from their posts and take a year-long sabbatical.
According to AP, the pope said Barros was told a similar exit strategy had been planned for the two other bishops, yet the plan went awry when Barros named the two in his letter stepping down as military bishop — a development that posed “a serious problem,” the pope wrote, and “blocked any eventual path, in the sense of offering a year of sabbatical.”
A Vatican spokesman declined an AP request for comment.
Barros said he knew nothing of the pope’s letter, and repeated his position that he knew nothing of Karadima’s crimes.
“I never knew anything about, nor ever imagined the serious abuses which that priest committed against the victims,” he told the AP.
Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims, refuted Barros’s denials. He told Crux via email that the three bishops- Barros, Tomislav Koljatic and Horacio Valenzuela- all knew “of the abuses against me and many others.”
Juan Carlos Claret Pool, a spokesman for the Organization of Laymen and Laywomen of Osorno, told Crux that the group is planning on being in Santiago protesting: “We will focus on the path of the popemobile, with the help of Peter Saunders, [former] member of the papal commission; of Alberto Athie, who uncovered the case of Maciel; and Pedro Salinas, who revealed the case of the Sodalites in Peru.”
Saunders, an abuse survivor himself, was put on a leave of absence by the commission, and he announced his resignation from the body in mid-December, a few days before his three-year term was scheduled to end.
“We don’t want to interrupt the pope’s events because we want to listen to his message too,” Claret said, adding that he hopes the pope goes to Chile not only to deliver a message, but also to listen to the people.
“The crisis is one of the hierarchy because when the lay men and women and the religious try to do our job, we find it difficult because of all the scandals,” he said.
Claret believes that a “radical change” of the ecclesial hierarchy is needed and in his opinion it should begin in Osorno.
Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims is among the organizers of a seminary on clerical sexual abuse that will take place in Santiago on the day Francis lands in Chile. Saunders is among the panelists.
He also said said that they will support the people of Osorno in their protests. They’re not “leftist,” he said, but good people who are very committed to the Church. He said that Francis had unnecessarily politicized an issue that is a “human rights problem in which the pope is all talk but no action.”
He sees this as a problem within the hierarchy, that continues to “cover up.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told journalists on Thursday that no encounter between the pope and survivors is on the agenda, but this “doesn’t mean it’s impossible, nor that it won’t happen.”
Ahead of the papal visit, BishopAccountability.org, a website tracking clerical sexual abuse, published a list of nearly 80 priests in Chile who’ve been accused of sexually abusing minors.
Last week, on Jan. 6, Spanish newspaper El Periodico published an article claiming that at least seven religious brothers from the Marist order had been accused by some 30 former students of the Marist schools in Chile of sexual abuses, going back as far as 1970, and as recently as 2010.
Outside of the West, Chile is arguably the country where the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, and the response to it, has caused the most palpable damage to the Church’s reputation.
“The Church, in these past years, because of very well-known cases of abuse, has lost its credibility,” said Bishop Fernando Ramos, director of the team organizing the papal visit.
Speaking with Crux, he added that part of that credibility loss is generalized and affecting every institution in the country, partially motivated by national economic growth, but in the Church’s case, “it’s had to do with this crisis.”
Despite the challenge, Ramos wouldn’t say that the local church as a whole is in crisis, but “facing a massive cultural re-shape.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained a mistake regarding the number of children recognized to have been fathered by the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. The number has been corrected, and Crux regrets the error