In December 2017, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski joined an ever-growing list of politicians found to have accepted bribes from scandal-plagued Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, having done so during his time as Minister of Economy and Finance. The revelation has since sparked a series of events that has left Peru a sorely divided nation.
Just days after the allegations were made, Kuczynski narrowly survived impeachment. This was largely thanks to a rebel faction of congress led by Kenji Fujimori, who refused to give Kuczynski’s foes the supermajority they required.
However, this seems to have come at the expense of one of his campaign pledges; only three days later, Kuczynski announced his intention to pardon former president Alberto Fujimori, jailed in 2007 for a litany of human rights abuses carried out under his watch during his presidency. Though many consider Fujimori to be the best president the country has ever had, his pardon has reopened wounds for victims of the terrors of his regime.
Pope Francis, on his first visit to the country as Pontiff, was entering muddied waters. For some, the Pontiff’s visit represented a chance to unify the staunchly Catholic nation. For others, who are unhappy with the Vatican’s scant record of confronting abuse scandals, the Pope himself is guilty of enabling such insidiousness.
The Case of Luis Fernando Figari
The man at the centre of one of Peru’s most infamous child abuse scandals is Luis Fernando Figari. In 1971, Figari founded an ultra-conservative catholic sect called the Sodalitium of Christian Life (Sodalitium). Over the next three decades, Sodalitium spread to have over 20,000 members across three continents. In 1997, it was granted pontifical approval and official recognition by the Vatican.
However, in 2015, Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Pae Ugaz published a book documenting the abuse that had taken place within Sodalitium. The book drew largely on the experiences of former sect member and writer Salas, as well documenting the testimonies of 30 other members who claimed that they had been abused, many under the guise of ‘spiritual guidance.’
The revelations caused outrage, and following the book’s release, Peruvian authorities opened an investigation into Figari and six others involved in Sodalitium.
Figari himself had moved to Rome in 2010, years after allegations first began to emerge from the sect. It was later revealed that these complaints against Figari had originally been forwarded to the Vatican in 2011, but the claims lay dormant. In fact, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which deals with cases of clerical sexual abuse, took five years to appoint a bishop to carry out an initial investigation in Peru.
A Vatican spokesperson claimed that given “the complexity and diversity of positions and interpretations,” the Vatican had wanted to act prudently, and that “some of the accusations did not have the necessary requisites to be taken as the basis for action by the congregation.” Father Victor Huapaya who had originally sent the complaints believes the Vatican has shown a lack of respect to the victims, having taken so long to act.
Peruvian police dropped the case against Figari in January 2017, but a month later a team of independent investigators commissioned by the SCV itself reported that Figari has sexually abused at least 19 minors and 17 adults, and concluded that “between 1975 and 2000 and once in 2007, five members of Sodalitium, including Figari, sexually abused minors.”
Following the investigation, the Vatican concluded that Figari had engaged in sexual activity “with some young men.” He was then ordered to live apart from the community in Rome, sanctions which the journalist Salinas has called “a golden exile, where he can live comfortably with all his needs taken care of.” Figari, meanwhile, insists he is innocent.
Critics say that the Vatican’s punishment of Figari has been negligible, but the Church claims its hands are tied on further action. In 2003, when Pope John Paul II scrapped the statute of limitations for abuse cases involving minors, the change only covered priests.
Leaders of the SCV are not priests but laymen within the Catholic church, and so the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith cannot ‘defrock’ nor sentence them to a “lifetime of prayer and penance.” Though it could be said that this punishment, labelled ‘the golden retreat’ by a survivor of abuse in Chile, is not too dissimilar from the circumstances in which Figari resides in Rome.
Because the abuse claims in Peru reach as far back as the 1970s, the gap in reforms means the case now lies outside of the canon law of the Catholic Church. The situation has been criticised and may be scrutinised when further reforms are made regarding sexual abuse. Victims will hope that solid action will to be taken to close what seems like an egregious loophole preventing justice.
Figari’s case has recently been reopened, and prosecutors are now seeking his arrest, having already charged him with ‘conspiracy to commit sexual, physical and psychological abuse.’ They also requested that other members of Sodalitium be incarcerated during the ongoing investigation.
After this announcement, the Vatican took steps to take over the Sodalitium sect by appointing Colombian Bishop Noel Antonio Londono as commissioner to oversee the movement. A statement from the Vatican claimed that the Pope had shown ‘particular attention to the gravity of information.’ Salinas, however, rejects this as a sensationalist manoeuvre, with another victim stating “this announced intervention does not take care of us, the victims.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said on January 17 that “[we] will in no way oppose Peruvian efforts to detain Figari.”
Response in Peru
On January 17, a group of women protested topless in front of Lima’s cathedral, carrying signs accusing the Pope of protecting paedophiles. On Sunday, a banner hung from a building close to a Church Lima where Pope Francis prayed, reading “Here there is proof”, featuring an image of Figari.
However, having sparked outrage over his comments towards abuse survivors in Chile, the Pope remained silent on the matter in Peru. Nor did he distance himself from Sodalitium or those associated with the abuse, having shared a stage with Sodalitium leader Archbishop Aguren on Saturday.
Despite being applauded for a full-frontal attack on corruption, victims of abuse within Sodalitium will be left bitterly disappointed that he failed to acknowledge their suffering. This will be compounded by their dissatisfaction regarding the lacklustre response of the Vatican, even after it took seven years to arrive. Such a response will do no favours to the region’s affiliation with Catholicism, which has fallen from 85 to 75% in the past decade.
A week before the Pope arrived, Peruvians in Lima awoke to find that the giant statue of Christ, donated in 2011 by the former CEO of the Odebrecht Organisation, had been charred, having caught fire thanks to some short-circuited lights. A timely coincidence, or perhaps an ill-fated omen.