Pope meets head of scandal-plagued order struggling with reform

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent

ROME – Pope Francis met with the leader of a scandal-ridden Peruvian lay group Saturday, a meeting which comes amid further complaints from former members and as the community is redrafting its governing constitutions.

On Saturday, Oct. 30, Pope Francis met privately at the Vatican with Father José David Correa Gonzalez, Superior General of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), known colloquially in Spanish as the Sodalites. Neither the Vatican nor the group has yet confirmed the content of the meeting, but presumably it concerned the ongoing overhaul of the SCV following waves of scandals involving charges of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

A spokesman for the SCV told Crux that a statement on the nature of the meeting is forthcoming.

Correa Gonzalez’s meeting with the pope follows a visit of a commission charged with revising the SCV’s statutes to Rome earlier this month.

The SCV is one of the best-known and most controversial religious groups in Latin America. It was established in Peru in the 1970s by layman Luis Fernando Figari, who is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse against members, including minors. In 2017 Figari was exiled and prohibited by the Vatican from having further contact with members of the group.

For decades, the SCV enjoyed a reputation as a fast-growing community with a knack for attracting young, enthusiastic new vocations.

However, scandals first erupted publicly in Peru in 2015 when Peruvian journalists Paola Ugaz and Pedro Salinas – himself a former member of the SCV and an alleged victim of their mistreatment – co-authored the book Half Monks, Half Soldiers detailing years of abuse inside the SCV.

Ever since the scandals went public and Figari was sanctioned, the SCV has been attempting a massive internal reform under the guidance of temporary external leaders appointed by the Vatican.

This reform, which has now been in the works for nearly five years, includes the complete re-writing of its constitutions, which guide the organization, governance, leadership, and discipline of the community, and define its purpose and unique charism.

In an Oct. 29 statement, the SCV explained the process for the rewriting of their constitutions, which is still in its initial stages.

Members of the SCV received the order to rewrite the constitutions from Vatican authorities overseeing the reform during their V General Assembly in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2019, during which new SCV leadership was elected.

The SCV’s current constitutions date back to July 8, 1997, when they were approved by the Holy See.

In November 2020, Correa Gonzalez in his capacity as superior general formed a Commission for the Review of the Constitutions of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, who are charged with re-reading the old document and drafting a new one.

That commission is led by SCV Vicar General Juan Carlos Boldt, and includes SCV members Fernando Vidal, Julio Egrejas, Aldo Giachetti, Father Daniel Cardó, and Father Gonzalo Len.

In their statement, the SCV described the commission’s work as “to guide and coordinate” the revision of the group’s constitutions to better express the community’s charism, saying “all members of the Sodalicio will actively participate” in the process.

After the commission was formed in November of last year, that same month the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CIVCSVA), which oversees the SCV and other similar communities, appointed Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda as Consultor to oversee the revision process.

Assisting him is Franciscan Father Fray Guillermo Rodríguez, the Vatican-appointed delegate overseeing SCV governance as they carry out their reform.

According to the SCV, their goal is to have the new constitutions ready in time for their VI General Assembly in late 2024 so they can be approved by the delegates to the meeting. Should it be approved, the draft will be sent to the CIVCSVA for their approval.

Commission members met in Rome for initial meetings from Oct. 5-12, which was described by the SCV as “very blessed days with time for prayer, listening, reflection, dialogue, and working together.”

On Oct. 6 commission members met with Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, secretary of the CIVCSVA, who the SCV said “encouraged and blessed this work and highlighted the importance of the revision of the Constitutions at this point in our history.”

According to the SCV statement, Rodríguez Carballo stressed that the new constitutions be brief and clearly express what the group’s charism is, and how to live it.

While in Rome, commission members also participated in a conference titled, “Societies of Apostolic Life: Nature, types, and distinct characteristics,” which was led by Father Leonello Liedi, who is an official with the CIVCSVA.

The meeting also comes as the SCV is facing increased pressure as more former members from various branches of the community are coming forward with complaints about various forms of abuse, including in the women’s branches.

The SCV has faced harsh scrutiny in recent years not only over the scandals surrounding Figari and other top members, but also for what some have described as the legal harassment of the journalists who exposed the scandals.

In 2018, Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru, who is a member of the SCV, slapped both Ugaz and Salinas with legal criminal charges of aggravated defamation for various reports they had made.

(In the Peruvian system, private citizens can file criminal charges for several offenses, including alleged defamation.)

Salinas was eventually found guilty and sentenced to a 1-year suspended jail sentence and a fine of around $24,000, but Eguren Anselmi later withdrew his complaints against both Salinas and Ugaz after facing backlash from the media and from the Church, including a condemnation from the Peruvian bishops’ conference.

Ugaz has continued to investigate the group, and for years has been preparing to release a new book detailing financial misdealing, however the publication of her work has been delayed due to an onslaught of legal complaints from groups or individuals associated with the SCV who also accuse her of defamation and whose formal accusations have slowed down further reporting.

There have also been numerous complaints arising from former members of another group established by Figari and which is therefore attached to the SCV, the Siervas del Plan de Dios, or the Servants of the Plan of God, known simply as the Siervas.

Differently than the SCV and its female branch, the Fraternidad Mariana de la Reconciliación, in English the Marian Community of Reconciliation – which are both lay consecrated societies of apostolic life – the Siervas are a religious order, who wear the traditional habit and take formal vows.

Several former members of the Siervas have complained about similar psychological abuses, as well as abuses of power and authority, within the community, and are preparing to make a formal complaint to the Vatican.

As more former members of the SCV family come forward, public scrutiny has increased, as has pressure from Peruvian ecclesial authorities, who are pushing for the group’s dissolution.

In an interview with Rosa Maria Palacios of Peruvian Radio Santa Rosa last year, Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto, who is a rising star in the Latin American church and who is close to Pope Francis, said, “My personal opinion, which I believe is shared by some, is that I insist that this religious organization should be dissolved and that those who are inside can be definitively helped to live with an authenticity of life.”

“This is an issue which we completely share (opinions on) as the presidency of the bishops’ conference,” he said.

Barreto indicated that the leadership of the Peruvian bishops’ conference had been in contact with the Vatican about the possible dissolution of the SCV, but said officials found it difficult to move forward.

“It’s not that they don’t want it, but they don’t see a way to require it,” he said, noting that until recently, there were clear rules in canon law for dealing with clergy who abused, but almost nothing for lay people or lay movements.

Earlier this summer the Vatican published a newly revised version of its penal code, which included new provisions for non-ordained religious and laypeople, such as a catechist or the head of a lay movement, such as Figari.

While the SCV’s future is still uncertain, the recent Rome meeting of the commission to revise its constitutions seems to imply that the Vatican is not ready to suppress it yet. However, Gonzalez’s meeting with the pope this weekend is a clear indication that whatever their current status is, they are being watched.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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