ROME – Paola Ugaz, a prominent Peruvian journalist known for her investigations of a contested Catholic lay group and who has faced several legal complaints over her reporting, met Pope Francis Thursday, describing the encounter as a victory for survivors.
Speaking to Crux, Ugaz called her meeting with the pope “a big message to the survivors of the Sodalicio, who continue without a response, justice, reparation.”
The “Sodalicio” refers to the Sodalitium Christinae Vitae (SCV), founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s.
Figari is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses within the community, including against minors. He was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group, and he is currently living in exile.
According to Ugaz, meeting the pope “was a very powerful message that one of the investigators could arrive to the highest level of the Catholic Church, because the survivors of the Sodalicio were looking to God, to heaven, for answers.”
She also said that Vatican representatives intervened on her behalf when a prominent archbishop and member of the SCV, Archbishop José Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru, filed criminal defamation charges against her for her investigations.
Ugaz and fellow Peruvian journalist Pedro Salinas first brought scandals involving the SCV to the public in 2015 with their bombshell book, Half Monks, Half Soldiers detailing years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by Figari.
Just three years later, in July 2018, Eguren Anselmi filed criminal defamation suits against both Salinas and Ugaz over subsequent investigative reports in which they named him as not only complicit in the SCV’s abuses, but also accused him of land trafficking in Piura.
(In the Peruvian system, private citizens can register a criminal complaint for defamation.)
A year later, shortly after winning his case against Salinas, which was tried in Piura, Eguren Anselmi retracted his complaints against both Salinas and Ugaz amid an avalanche of public, media, and ecclesial criticism.
However, Ugaz – who is set to publish a new book detailing alleged financial misdeeds within the SCV, including by members who still hold prominent roles in the group – has continued to receive legal notices from individuals and associations with ties to the SCV, most of whom accuse her of defamation.
Her reporting has focused not only on allegations of abuse within and on the part of members of the SCV, but also accusations of land trafficking.
Ugaz has investigated allegations of criminal activity in the purchase of a large patch of land in Piura by the San Juan Bautista Civil Association, which has ties to the SCV, and involvement with the criminal group La Gran Cruz in the process.
The onslaught of legal charges against her has delayed the publication of Ugaz’s new book, however, she has begun reporting bits of her investigation into SCV finances in Peruvian media.
Salinas has also continued to write regularly on the SCV and its members, and recently published a new book on the group.
In her comments to Crux, Ugaz said she spent roughly an hour with the pope and described the conversation as being “warm” and a conversation “among friends.”
Referring to her and Salinas’s trouble with Eguren Anselmi, she said, “when the complaint against me was made by Archbishop Eguren, and against Pedro Salinas, Pope Francis’s team sent a lot of messages of solidarity.”
“It had consequences,” she said, saying it as thanks to the intervention of the pope’s representatives in the Vatican and in Peru that “they took out the complaints in Piura, which were unjust.”
She said Pope Francis voiced his gratitude to her and Salinas “for the work that we do,” and described him as being “very kind, very solidary, very affectionate, as with family.”
“I think we have something in common, which is his zero-tolerance policy on abuse, we are investigating abuse, we have many friends in common,” she said, adding, “I didn’t realize I had friends in common with him.”
In addition to the SCV, Ugaz said they also discussed the latest developments in Latin America, Africa, and other places around the world.
Ugaz said the meeting meant a lot to her personally, “as I am the journalist who has received the most complaints in my country for my investigations, (so) it’s a very powerful message.”
Generally, women journalists in Latin America “are treated worse than male journalists,” she said, so as a woman, a mother, and a professional who has been “persecuted” and who has also received death threats for her reporting, “to be received by the pope is also a sort of symbolic reparation.”
Pope Francis, she said, gave her a book and a holy card with a prayer on it, and she gave him several items from Peru, including an image of the Andean city of Cusco.
“It was very exciting, as a journalist, as a woman journalist, having faced persecution, I felt very happy to be able to meet with the pope,” she said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen