ACI Prensa Staff, Aug 9, 2023 / 14:30 pm (CNA).
Envoys appointed by Pope Francis for a fact-finding visit to Sodalitium Vitae Christianae (“Sodality of Christian Life,” or SCV) recently concluded their trip to Peru after a series of meetings with members of the society of apostolic life as well as with complainants and victims.
The Holy Father’s envoys were Charles J. Scicluna, the archbishop of Malta and assistant secretary for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), and DDF official Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu.
For several days, Scicluna and Bertomeu met inside the apostolic nunciature in Peru with accusers such as Pedro Salinas, a former member of the SCV, and journalist Paola Ugaz, who together with Salinas published in 2015 an exposé book on the Sodalitium, “Mitad Monjes, Mitad Soldados” (“Half Monks, Half Soldiers”).
The book contains a series of accusations of the abuse of power and sexual abuse against the founder of the society, Luis Fernando Figari, and triggered the investigations that led to the appointment of a pontifical commissioner over the Sodalitium, the highest level of intervention carried out by the Vatican because it entails the cessation of all authority in that institution.
This process concluded at its Fifth General Assembly in 2019 with the election of a new superior of the SCV, Colombian José David Correa, and new members of its high council.
Also in attendance were, among others, José Enrique Escardó, who began publishing accusations of mistreatment and abuse within the Sodalitium more than two decades ago.
According to the Associated Press, among those interviewed were members of the San Juan Bautista de Catacaos rural community, a town in Piura in northern Peru, who accuse the Catholic institution of appropriating their land illegally.
Specifically, they accuse institutions linked to the sodality of appropriating some 1,895 hectares (about 4,680 acres) of their community.
The Vatican envoys also met with various members of the Sodalitium, among them superior general Correa, Father Jaime Baertl, and the archbishop of nearby Piura, José Antonio Eguren.
In an Aug. 7 statement sent to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, José Antonio Dávila, general assistant for finances of the SCV, denied the accusations of land trafficking, stating that “never has the Sodalitium, nor any institution related to its apostolic mission, [participated] in the crime of land trafficking, or any type of illicit association with criminal gangs, and even less so have the rural people of that area or any other been abused.”
He explained that “all real estate or agricultural projects that any institution related to the Sodalitium has carried out in Piura and its surroundings, in order to generate resources for the apostolic mission, have been carried out in compliance with the law. The acquisition of land has always been done legally, through purchase and sale contracts that complied with all the formalities. This is absolutely substantiated by the public records of Peru, which any citizen can freely consult.”
Al Jazeera report and allegations of land trafficking
The allegations of land trafficking were made public in 2016 in a report by Peruvian journalist Daniel Yovera and aired on the Al Jazeera television network.
After “The Sodalitium Scandal” report was broadcast, Carlos Alberto Gómez de la Torre, then representative of the San Juan Bautista Civil Association, an institution linked to the SCV and accused in the documentary of usurping land from rural inhabitants, filed aggravated defamation lawsuits against Yovera and other people who participated in the report, including Paola Ugaz, Samuel Alberca, and Carmen Campodónico.
The accusation against Yovera was considered beyond the statute of limitations by the judiciary in June, but the ruling was appealed by Gómez de la Torre. Last year, the lawsuit against Ugaz was considered beyond the statute of limitations and dismissed by the Peruvian justice system.
Alberca was convicted in a lower court and acquitted on appeal. But with the passage of time, the statute of limitations also expired. Campodónico was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 1,000 soles (about $270) in civil reparation, and his sentence was finalized.
In his statement to ACI Prensa, Dávila also rejected the accusations in the Yovera documentary and assured that the report contains “a succession of falsehoods, errors, and omissions.”
The versions of those who made allegations against the companies related to the Sodalitium, Dávila said, “were not duly checked and corroborated in an investigation that supposedly seeks to have journalistic rigor. As if that were not enough, they did not include in the report the defense’s documents that were delivered to the journalist in charge of the investigation, long before the report was broadcast.”
Sodalitium expresses gratitude for visit
At the end of the Scicluna and Bertomeu visit, the Sodalitium published a statement signed by its superior general thanking the pope’s envoys “for their presence and work during their visit to Peru.”
Correa said he had given the papal envoys “updated information on the care and reparation process for victims of abuse in the Sodalitium” and explained that they were asked for additional information on some financial matters, “which we are committed to providing clearly and completely within the time frame established by the envoys of the Holy Father.”
According to Correa, they will include international audits that these institutions have been undergoing for several years, as well as reports that clearly support some issues of interest to the delegates.” In addition, he noted that “this information has already been presented to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, our delegate appointed by the Holy See for financial affairs.”
The Sodalitium case
The most serious accusations against the SCV are linked to its founder, Luis Fernando Figari, and Germán Doig, who was his vicar general until his sudden death in 2001.
A Sodalitium report published in 2017 acknowledges the sexual abuse and abuse of power by Figari as well as those of Doig and former members of the institution: Virgilio Levaggi, Jeffrey Daniels, and Daniel Murguía.
According to the Sodalitium, it has an approved amount of $2.84 million for financial reparations and different types of assistance to victims.
A new investigation by the prosecutor?
During the visit of the pope’s envoys, on Aug. 1 the Peruvian newspaper La República reported that prosecutor Manuela Villar Ramírez, who specializes in money laundering cases, opened a preliminary investigation into Luis Baertl Jourde, cousin of Father Jaime Baertl, and Sodalitium members Juan Len Álvarez and Carlos Neuenschwander Sahurie, who years ago were general assistants of finances of the SCV.
La República referenced a publication from the Convoca.pe portal from November 2021 about the leak of the documents known as the “Pandora Papers” and the alleged creation of offshore accounts linked to the Sodalitium in the British Virgin Islands and Panama: Alma Minerals Limited and Providential Group Inc., respectively.
These organizations are in turn related to the Peruvian companies Alma Minerals Perú SA and Inversiones San José SA.
According to La República, Villar, the Peruvian prosecutor in charge of the case, said this corporate scheme could have been used for the Sodalitium to hide income allegedly linked to mining activities.
The Sodalitium responds
In his statement to ACI Prensa, Dávila rejected “any accusation that the Sodalitium, any of its members, and the institutions related to its life and mission have committed some type of crime of usurping and trafficking in land, money laundering, tax fraud, or illegally taking advantage of the church-state agreement in Peru.”
“The financial information of the Sodalitium and that of its related institutions have gone through external financial audits annually for more than a decade — some have even been audited for more than 20 years — the same ones that are currently conducted by top-level international financial institutions,” Dávila continued.
In addition, he stated that “all the historical information of the Sodalitium and related institutions has been delivered in a timely manner to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, delegate ‘ad nutum’ of the Holy See for financial affairs since 2016, with whom we have constant meetings for information and consultation.”
“Thus, for example, a preliminary investigation is currently underway that has been shelved three times by the Organized Crime Prosecutor’s Office. In 2018, a preliminary investigation of 10 institutions related to the Prosecutor’s Office on Taxes was also shelved and this year a file was also shelved at the Prosecutor’s Office on Money Laundering.
“Last week three related institutions [were] notified of a new preliminary investigation into money laundering, news that came after the announcement of some newspaper articles,” he pointed out.
The Sodalitium official assured that “these institutions will deal with this investigation, trusting in the law and justice, and cooperating with the public prosecutor’s office for whatever they request, as has been done in the last seven years.”
“We reiterate our absolute denial that the Sodalitium, any of its members, or related institutions have committed any crime,” he concluded.
Reactions to the visit
The visit by Scicluna and Bertomeu drew various reactions from some of those who made allegations in the Sodalitium case.
“I don’t know what will happen, but I left the meeting with the envoys of Pope Francis more than satisfied,” Pedro Salinas said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Paola Ugaz noted on X that she met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in November 2022 and celebrated the fact that eight months later, the Holy Father “sent the mission that will investigate the Sodalitium.”
A different position was expressed by José Enrique Escardó, who shared the letter he delivered to Scicluna and Bertomeu during their meeting at the apostolic nunciature: “I do not trust you two. I do not trust Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who sent you … I challenge you to prove me wrong with the actions you will take when you leave my country.”
The Sodalitium also published a photo of the meeting of its superior general with the Vatican investigators. In its Facebook post, it said it thanks the pope’s envoys “for this space for dialogue about the reality of our Sodalitium community.”
“We also thank Pope Francis for his concern for the Church and for the Sodalitium,” it added.
An investigative commission of Peru’s Congress of the Republic addressed the Sodalitium case. Its final report has been in the congressional archive since July 2019, waiting for it to be brought up for discussion during a joint session of Congress.
This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.
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