ROME – Rocio Figueroa Alvear is a theologian, an abuse survivor and a consecrated woman-turned-whistle-blower on scandals in her former community. After trying unsuccessfully to raise the alarm both in her order and in the Vatican, she left, and is now a researcher and activist pushing for a change in Church structures that allow abuse and cover-up to happen.
A former member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), a pontifically-recognized Society of Apostolic Life, Figueroa said that while much discussion in the Church has so far focused on the abuse and cover-up by priests and bishops, lay movements are next on the list.
Asked whether lay movements are the “next frontier,” Figueroa said “absolutely,” and pinned part of the problem on the Church granting “too much power to lay movements.”
“They have lots of rights and no responsibilities, no accountability, so it’s very complicated,” she said, explaining that in her view, there need to be changes in canon law that better address the specific needs of lay movements which would also protect their members.
Speaking at a Nov. 27 Voices of Faith event in Rome, Figueroa recounted her story of entering the MCR after being abused by one of the high-ranking members of the male branch of the community, the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), when she was 15.
At the time, the women’s branch of the SCV – established by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in 1971 – had not been established yet, and Figueroa met the group through her brother in 1983. Feeling a call to give herself to God, she began receiving spiritual direction from the order’s vicar general, German Doig, who would later be found guilty of sexually abusing multiple people, including minors.
Figueroa said she was “naïve” and didn’t understand what was happening when Doig began touching her during “exercises” to help her “manage her sexuality.” Convinced he had her best interests in mind but feeling uncomfortable, she asked him to stop and earnestly believed he had changed his behavior.
Still feeling a call to give her life to God, Figueroa became one of five women to start the women’s branch, the MCR, in 1986. Although she was happy, she said Figari never visited the community, calling him a “misogynist” who would always tell the women they were “less intelligent” than the men and needed to be “more masculine.”
Once the community began to grow, Figari stepped in and began managing the MCR on a daily basis, assigning the women to work in projects run by men, but essentially treating them like slaves, as they would work unpaid while the men’s community received financial benefits, she said.
Figueroa, who was superior general at the time, objected and said she believed she could change Figari’s behavior, but instead found herself demoted and assigned to the community house in Rome.
“It was the beginning of my liberation,” she said, recounting how she was assigned to work as head of the women’s office in the former Vatican department for laity.
It was while she was there that Doig died suddenly in 2001. Around this time, Figueroa said she had been confronted by a priest who said she was overly defensive of men and asked whether something had happened. When she told him what Doig had done to her at the age of 15, he told her she had been sexually abused.
“For the first time I realized I was a victim,” she said, explaining that although she was in her 40s, she began a long process of healing. However, after Doig’s death, Figari asked her to help promote his cause for canonization inside the Vatican.
Feeling conflicted, since many people at the time believed Doig to be a saint, Figueroa said she confided the situation in confession, and the priest’s advice was to investigate since Doig could have reformed his behavior. However, in 2006 she discovered there was another victim who had been abused after she was, and soon after that, another.
“He was not a saint, but a serial perpetrator,” she said, explaining that she uncovered evidence of even more victims who had suffered abuse and rape at Doig’s hands. Yet when she confronted Figari, he told her she was a liar, that she was concocting schemes against the SCV, and that the abuse didn’t matter, because the community “needed a saint.”
During the conversation, Figueroa said Figari had become agitated and “crazy,” mentioning two victims that she had not yet discovered.
After the conversation, Figueroa said she developed a tumor and was then ostracized from the community. Once she had recovered, she began a more in-depth investigation. Once she had enough evidence, she met with the leadership of the SCV and asked them to put the brakes on Doig’s cause and to demote Figari, who was still serving as superior general of the men’s community, and to launch an investigation against him.
While the SCV complied with the first two requests, having Figari step down and sent to Rome due to “health reasons,” they did not launch an investigation. She continued to look into it, finding more victims and abusers among the SCV’s high-ranking members.
Figueroa said when she was ordered by Figari to step down from her Vatican role due to “illness,” she spoke to a cardinal she was close to, and told him everything she had discovered.
Instead of pledging to take action, Figueroa said the cardinal gave her two options: either leave the community or stay and be a “silent soldier.” This, she said, is because “those cardinals were the ones promoting new movements.”
Eventually fed up, she helped victims write to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, to the Secretary of State, and to all other Vatican departments, yet Figueroa said she did not receive one answer.
She left the community in 2011, and seeing that neither it nor the Church were taking action on the abuses, she passed the stories onto a journalist and former member of the SCV, Pedro Salinas, who in 2015 published the book Half Monks, Half Soldiers with Peruvian journalist Paola Ugaz, detailing physical, sexual and psychological abuse by Figari, Doig and other members of the SCV.
Only then did the Vatican and the SCV act. An apostolic visitor was sent, an internal investigation was launched, and, in 2017, the Vatican finally sanctioned Figari, sentencing him to a life of prayer and forbidding him to contact the community.
Figari denied the charges and launched an appeal, which was rejected. He launched a second appeal, which is currently awaiting judgement. Figari still lives in Rome, facing an order of preventive detention back in Peru due to a civil case.
Currently a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, New Zealand, Figueroa said she’s spent the past four years researching the spiritual impact of clerical abuse.
Clerical abuse, she said, “is not the same” as other types of abuse, because perpetrators are believed to represent God, leaving “enormous” consequences for victims.
Figueroa also spoke of understanding Jesus himself as a victim of sexual abuse, noting how at the time it was common practice for prisoners to be humiliated and paraded around naked. Though Jesus is always depicted on the cross wearing a loincloth, history suggests he was likely exposed.
“He was surrounded by people mocking him naked,” she said, adding that “if they understand that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse, they would treat victims differently,” referring to the hierarchy.
Also present at the event, titled “Overcoming Silence: Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis,” was Barbara Dorris, a survivor of clerical abuse and the former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who told her story of being raped by a priest at the age of six, the trauma she suffered afterward, and the cover-up she found when she tried to expose other cases of abuse.
Doris Wagner, a former member of the Spiritual Family the Work community, which has close ties to members of the Roman Curia, also shared her experience of abuse of power by her superiors, and her eventual rape by a male superior.
Feeling that she would be blamed, she didn’t say anything, and later received inappropriate sexual advances from a confessor. When she finally told her superior, she was told that the priest “has a weakness for women” and that she could have a new confessor, but no disciplinary action was taken. She finally left the community in 2011.
One of the biggest lessons Wagner said she learned is the importance of speaking out.
“If someone tells you that you have to keep silent and endure the abuse and suffering, don’t believe it,” she said, because Jesus Christ exists, and “he has died to make us free.”
Figueroa said she’s optimistic about a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on abuse for heads of all bishops’ conferences worldwide, believing Pope Francis is making progress and wants changes in canon law.
“I want to see them,” she said, adding that “I think those changes will come, they have to come, and they will, I’m sure of it.”