ROME – Judicial authorities in Peru are currently deliberating whether to close an investigation into a scandal-plagued lay community over a procedural technicality, which has drawn criticism from victims who claim their voices are not being heard.
In October 2015, a group of victims of the Sodalitium Christinae Vitae (SCV) filed a legal complaint for sexual abuse of minors against the community’s founder, Peruvian laymen Luis Fernando Figari, and a handful of other top members.
A second complaint was filed in May 2016 for physical, sexual, and psychological abuses, indoctrination or mental “kidnapping,” and illicit business practices.
One of the largest and most prominent Catholic lay groups in Latin America, the SCV was founded by Figari in Peru in the 1970s. Figari, who is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses, including of minors, in 2017 was prohibited by the Vatican from having further contact with members of the group and is now living in exile.
Also in 2017, the first civil case against Figari and other SCV members was archived on grounds that the legal deadline by which to complete the preliminary investigation had passed.
In August this year, lawyers representing Figari and other top members of the SCV asked the Peruvian Judiciary to close the second case, which had gone to the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime over the illicit business activities charge, arguing that the case opened in 2015, rather than 2016, and that therefore the 36-month deadline to investigate this allegation, renewable for one term, had also passed.
At the time the presiding judge ruled against them on grounds that the investigation had not actually begun until after the complaint was filed, with several delays along the way.
In a separate hearing, the Provincial Prosecutor Eduardo Castañeda attached to the case argued that the deadline for completing the investigation ought to start from December 2019, as that is the date when the case actually reached the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime.
The hearing for the appeals took place Nov. 18. During this hearing, the presiding Superior Prosecutor Carlos Matamoros Curipaco sided with lawyers for the SCV, deviating from Castañeda’s position.
According to Raiza Arroyo Mansour, who is a lawyer representing the victims, it is highly unusual for a Superior Prosecutor to deviate from the position taken by the Provincial Prosecutor.
“Usually, the superior prosecutor always goes along the same line as the provincial prosecutor, but in this case the superior prosecutor defended the thesis of the defendants’ lawyers, despite the fact that the provincial prosecutor himself had asked for more time to continue with his investigations,” Arroyo told Crux.
Curipaco also barred victims from testifying at the hearing and refused to hear arguments from victims’ lawyers on why the case should not be closed, Arroyo said.
“By law, victims have the right to be heard before decisions that can put an end to the case,” Arroyo said, noting that if this case is also archived, victims would no longer be able to raise criminal charges against members of the SCV for the abuses they suffered.
If the case is closed, “the entire central investigation into the Sodalitium is over,” she said, saying they do not know when the next hearing will be. This, Arroyo said, depends on an appeal currently before First Permanent Criminal Appeals Chamber Specialized in Organized Crime, which will issue their ruling “without listening to the victims.”
Should the appeal be denied, the Provincial Prosecutor will then be required to make a final decision based on the merit of the information he has at that moment, rather than a full investigation, “as he has just begun to obtain data on that matter,” Arroyo said.
In a statement following the Nov. 18 hearing, the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) advocacy group criticized Curipaco’s decision over what they called “irregularities” in the legal procedures for the investigation into the SCV.
They criticized the fact that “the fate of the Sodalitium case could be said without having listened to the victims,” saying the decision not to let them give testimony was a violation of “their fundamental right to defense.”
Pointing to new reports that have emerged on SCV finances and business dealings, ECA said it was uncanny that some are pushing for the investigation into the SCV’s business activities to be closed “just when they had taken a new turn.”
“In effect, this whole irregular situation occurs just when the Sodalitium’s finances are being investigated, with the name of the first Sodalit priest, Jaime Bertl Gómez, emerging again in the case,” they said.
Noting that on Dec. 8 the SCV will celebrate 50 years since its foundation, ECA lamented that “to this day the only convicted person is one of the journalists who revealed his conduct of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.”
Abuses inside of the SCV were exposed in 2015 with the bombshell book Half Monks, Half Soldiers, coauthored by journalists Paola Ugaz and Pedro Salinas, a former member of the group, detailing years of psychological, and sexual abuse inside the SCV.
In 2018 both Ugaz and Salinas were charged with defamation by Peruvian Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, who is a member of the SCV, for their reporting on the organization. Eguren later dropped those charges after facing significant legal and ecclesial backlash, but only after Salinas had already been found guilty by a Piura court.
Ugaz is currently authoring a new book detailing the financial workings and business affairs of the SCV, and has so far published three new reports alleging, among other things, that the SCV moved money abroad to avoid making payouts to victims.
In their statement, ECA voiced support for Salinas, and said they would continue to be vigilant “in this step-by-step process” pursuing legal justice.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen