Lima, Peru – One way of looking at the Francis pontificate is that he’s universalizing what the Latin American Church agreed to at its famous continent-wide gathering in 2007, held at the Marian shrine of Aparecida in Brazil.
The signature tunes of the Latin American Church to come out of that meeting – missionary discipleship, pastoral conversion, an option for the poor– make up the music these days coming out of Rome.
But there’s another version of the Church here, one that can seem at odds with the Church of Pope Francis.
A number of Latin America’s home-grown movements grew rapidly among the upper classes as a reaction to the Second Vatican Council-shaped, social justice-driven Catholicism of the 1970s and 80s.
Admired by many in the Vatican, including St. John Paul II, for their orthodoxy, obedience and evangelizing zeal, Mexico’s Legionaries of Christ, Chile’s El Bosque, and Peru’s Sodalitium of the Christian Life had certain traits in common.
All three mixed dynamic evangelization and recruitment programs with energetic money-raising and charismatic leadership that demanded absolute obedience.
And, in all three cases, their founders – Marcial Maciel, Fernando Karadima, and Luis Fernando Figueroa, were later shown to be sexual abusers. Their behavior was for years concealed by their hallowed status within the movement, reinforced by the applause from Rome.
For organizations with a strong culture of success and a tendency to suspect some quarters of the wider Church of lacking orthodoxy and zeal, the revelations have been a grueling humiliation.
Peru’s 20,000-strong “Sodalitium of Christian Life” is the latest to undergo the trauma of discovering painful truths about their founder, the only layman of the three. A book published in October last year by Pablo Salinas, a former sodálite – as celibate male leaders are known – detailed 30 cases of abuse attributed to Figari of a psychological, physical and sexual nature, dating back to the 1970s-80s.
Figari has been living in a luxury Sodalitium-owned apartment in the center of Rome since 2011, when the movement’s new superior general, Alessandro Moroni, decided to move him away from the Sodalitium’s base in the Peruvian capital, Lima.
But not until last week did Moroni finally issue the first official admission that the accusations were true. Flying into Lima to give evidence to civil authorities, he recorded a video on arrival apologizing both for Figari’s abuse and the leadership’s failure to deal with the complaints.
In the video, he also called for Pope Francis to expel Figari from the Sodalitium – a step only Rome can take, because of Figari’s founder status.
However, the Vatican has told Moroni to wait on the outcome of an inquiry into the abuse ordered last year by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The visitor, Bishop Fortunato Pablo Urcey, is expected to report very soon.
Moroni says that Figari is still in his Rome apartment “at the specific request of the Holy See”, pending the visitor’s report.
In the meantime, a commission appointed by the Sodalitium itself published over the weekend a devastating 10-page report, documenting an internal culture in which “discipline and obedience to [Figari] were forged on the basis of extreme physical demands and punishments” as well as “abuses which violated the fundamental rights of people”.
The commission, which includes lawyers, psychiatrists and a Peruvian bishop, also reported how Figari’s men sought to attract school-age young people to serve in the Sodalitium apostolate, targeting white-skinned, wealthy young people who would serve Figari’s every need and whim.
The young men were cut off from their families, bullied, and sexually abused in what the report describes as “an attempt to destroy their individual will”.
Although there were complaints and denunciations, says the report, the leadership failed to act, covering up the abuses in a “complicit silence” over many years.
Because the abuse was perpetrated over 25 years ago, the statute of limitations makes it impossible for Figari to be prosecuted by civil authorities.
Cases presented to an ecclesiastical tribunal here were sent to Rome in 2011 and 2013 but have still not received a response beyond the visitation. Because Figari is a layman, he is not the responsibility of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is only competent to punish clergy.
Figari himself has denied the accusations, and communicates with Moroni via his attorney.
In an interview for Crux last week before the commission report, Lima’s archbishop, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, argued that despite “a clearly rotten leadership” in the original, consecrated male branch of the order (the “Sodalicio”), there are great fruits in the many groups in the wider Sodalitium family.
But Cipriani, himself a member of the Catholic organization Opus Dei, said the formation process in the Sodalitium requires a root-and-branch makeover.
“The method and nature of the formation they have had as a result of Figari has been of a constant psychological abuse of dominating people through violence and threats,” Cipriani said. “The whole formation process has to be reformed.”
For that to happen, he said, “it’s essential to have outside help, because [the leaders] are all a product of that formation process.”
The Sodalitium-appointed commission’s report comes to the same conclusion, calling for the Vatican urgently to put in place a whole new leadership structure made up of outsiders, to ban former leaders from positions of authority, and for Figari to receive the severest possible sanction from the Vatican – presumably a life of seclusion and penance.
Former victims who were for years excoriated and shunned within the movement for daring to complain expressed their satisfaction with the report.
They include Rocío Figueroa, a former member of the consecrated women’s branch known as the Fraternas who was abused by one of Figari’s closest associates.
She has long described how Figari and his immediate followers were imbued by a form of Gnosticism, seeing themselves as having special powers.
Figari, recalls Figueroa, spurned darker and less well-off people, as well as women.
“We never saw him working with poor people, nor visiting the sick, nor making acts of kindness,” she recalls. “He didn’t know how to ask forgiveness, and if anyone slipped up, he was anything but charitable.”
Following the commission report, it is hard to imagine the Vatican not ordering a sweeping makeover of the leadership.
Moroni, who has confessed to slapping people in the face (but is not accused of sexual abuse), says he will comply with whatever the Vatican orders.
Like many others close to the situation here, the cardinal is clearly frustrated that the Vatican has not responded sooner.
“It would help the situation if the founder were separated and an authority appointed to reform the formation process,” he told me, adding that there was also an “economic dimension” to the distortions within the organization.
“It would help if the Sodalitium had less money and less attachment to power,” he said.
While the organization badly needs thorough reform, Cipriani said, it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
“Put it all on the scales, and I have no doubt that the positive outweighs the negative,” he said. “They’ve done wrong, and they have to be corrected – but not destroyed.”