SÃO PAULO (OSV News) — The visit of Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Spanish Msgr. Jordi Bertomeu to Peru to investigate the lay organization Sodalitium Christianae Vitae is being received with confidence by many of the group’s victims, who hope it will be finally dissolved. Some, however, say, they lost hope that the case will be resolved.
Once a powerful lay institution with massive membership not only in Peru, but in several other countries, the Sodalitium was accused of promoting systemic spiritual, physical and sexual abuse against dozens of members for decades, as well as financial corruption.
The Sodalitium was founded by lay Catholic Luis Fernando Figari in 1971 and was acknowledged as a society of apostolic life, approved by Pope John Paul II in 1997. With a reputation of being a conservative and elitist organization, it has male and female branches, besides lay movements.
Despite church interventions on different occasions in past years, “nothing was done to hold the abusers responsible” and they “kept perpetrating crimes,” said theologian Rocio Figueroa, a lecturer at Good Shepherd College in New Zealand and a former member of the group, in which she spent 22 years.
“At times we emphasize only the theme of the abuse but we forget to talk about the structure that allows it, which involves coercion, brainwashing, spiritual and psychological manipulation,” she told OSV News, adding that she interviewed former members, who left the Sodalitium only two years ago, and reported that such practices still continue.
Figueroa, who joined the organization when she was 18, was herself a victim of sexual abuse. She became a central figure in the denunciations against the group and, as a scholar, has done research and authored works about its procedures.
“I trust in (Archbishop) Scicluna and (Msgr.) Bertomeu because they played a decisive role in the Chilean case,” she said, alluding to the inquiry they conducted in the South American country in 2018, which investigated the crimes perpetrated by pedophile Fernando Karadima, a priest who ended up being laicized. Their report on the cover-up operation carried out by the Chilean church led Pope Francis to apologize to the Chilean people. All Chilean bishops offered their resignation to the pontiff afterward.
Archbishop Scicluna, who is the adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Msgr. Bertomeu — who is also a member of the Dicastery — are set to talk to victims and leaders of the Sodalitium, as well as journalists who investigated the organization. Archbishop Sciluna is known as a top-Vatican prosecutor in sexual abuse cases, having investigated the case of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, Legionaries of Christ founder, in 2005.
Two reporters, Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz, played a key role in making the Sodalitium’s crimes known. They conducted thorough investigations into the organization and denounced their misdeeds in best-selling books.
Their work prompted a wave of lawsuits for defamation, one of them filed by Archbishop José Antonio Eguren of Piura. Archbishop Eguren, a member of the Sodalitium, won the case against Salinas, but ended up pulling back his petition after the Vatican intervened, Ugaz recalled.
“When the first book about the abuses was published in 2015 (Half Monks, Half Soldiers), the Sodalitium said it would apologize and help the victims. But when they knew we were investigating their financial operations, they came after us,” Ugaz told OSV News.
She said that one of her interviewees alerted her years ago about Sodalitium’s appetite for money, telling her that the group owned vast areas in Piura and was involved in several ventures.
“I began to investigate and discovered that they combined not-for-profit endeavors, like schools, with corporate activities, including real estate and mining businesses. They operated like a regular company,” she said.
Ugaz’s work also revealed that Sodalitium had offshores in Panama and elsewhere and sent money to them. Their actions, she added, could never be properly monitored by the Peruvian authorities, given that they used the concordat (the official convention defining the relationship between the Catholic church and the state in a given country) between the Holy See and Peru to claim they had religious exemptions.
“They were profiting with the non-paid work of their members, who could not even complain about the conditions they had to endure,” she described.
Ugaz was received by Pope Francis in November 2022 to talk about her work and the threats she has been facing. As a result of their work, the reporters say that businessmen connected to the Sodalitium have been creating fake news about them and filing lawsuits against them. Ugaz also has received death threats and was told that she is being followed.
“Pope Francis was very sympathetic with me, told me that women like myself must keep telling those stories, and gave me much hope. That is why I think this inquiry will be decisive,” she said of the Scicluna-Bertomeu Peru investigation.
Not everybody is hopeful about it, however. José Enrique Escardó, a former member of the Sodalitium and the first victim to denounce the abuses perpetrated by the group 23 years ago, told OSV News that he does not “expect anything from the present inquiry.”
“Four years ago, I was called by the church because they were launching an investigation. I talked to a commission and told my story. Nothing happened,” he said.
Indeed, few measures were taken. An apostolic visitor was first sent to inspect the Sodalitium in 2015, a few years after the first denouncements against Figari, the founder, emerged. Two years later, the organization acknowledged that 66 persons were abused and pledged to compensate them. The report indicated that Figari, along with three other former members, committed sexual abuse involving 19 minors and 10 adults.
Figari was sent to Rome, impeded to go back to Peru and to have contact with the Sodalitium, and he now lives in exile. Commissioners were appointed to take control of the group, and its statutes have been reformed. But no further steps have been taken until now.
“Those initiatives re-victimize us. They create hope among us that something will be done,” Escardó said.
Last year, he founded the Red de Sobrevivientes Perú (Peru Survivors Network), which gathers victims of ecclesial abuse through the Sodalitium and other Catholic groups. The network’s goal is to provide legal and psychological help to the victims.
“Reparation is not only about money. It is something that has to be individualized. Some victims spent 20 or 30 years in the Sodalitium and do not have a career. Six months of therapy and some cash are not enough,” Escardó said.
He affirmed that more than 200 people have reported some kind of abuse in the Sodalitium, but that is only a small fraction of the real number of victims, “given that most people prefer not to talk about what they have gone through.”
Many denunciations may come to light in the near future, and not only in Peru. Last year, Chilean journalist Camila Bustamante, who used to be a member of the Christian Life Movement — a lay group focused on promoting the vocation of the laity and connected to the Sodalitium — released a book with reports of abuse in the female branch of the Sodalitium in Chile.
In her work, she describes how the “servants” were subjected to all kinds of psychological pressure, including to avoid gaining weight, given that fat “servants” are not considered “apostolic” and all women should be seen as “young and beautiful sisters.”
“I began my research with the idea of changing things from the inside. The group initially supported my project, but after a while the doors were closed,” Bustamante told OSV News.
In 2017, she published an article in a Chilean newspaper with denunciations of the Sodalitium, and in 2022 she released the complete work.
“When the scandal first erupted in Peru, the focus was on the male group. The other branches kept doing the same things, and few people were aware of it. It is a problem that comprises the whole organization,” she said.
“I think it is excellent that this matter is investigated in depth, that the people involved are heard and I am sure that the report will be fair and objective for the good of all,” Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte, president of the Peruvian bishops’ conference, said in a statement July 22. Archbishop Cabrejos is expected to meet with the envoys of Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Lima.
The journalists responsible for uncovering the Sodalitium scandal met with papal envoys on July 26. Reporter Pedro Salinas told Spanish newspaper ABC that he trusts “the Scicluna-Bertomeu mission and I hope they dissolve the Sodalicio (Sodalitium); a toxic, sectarian, mafia and corrupt organization with a religious facade.”
Eduardo Campos Lima writes for OSV News from São Paulo.