World News

Sex Abuse Case Shadows Pope Francis’ Visit to Peru

Posted January 17, 2018 9:48 p.m. EST
Updated January 17, 2018 9:54 p.m. EST

LIMA, Peru — It was 3 in the morning when Luis Fernando Figari, the leader of a powerful Catholic organization in Peru, summoned Oscar Osterling and two other young men in their 20s to a room with him.

He had made unusual requests before, under the guise of “spiritual guidance,” but not this: Figari, Osterling says, told the men to undress as he pulled out a video camera and started recording.

“If someone asked you to do something, you simply did it,” says Osterling, now 44, recalling that night in 1991. “Some 20 years later, I realized that lots of people were asked to undress.”

Prosecutors in Peru say that Figari orchestrated the sexual and physical abuse of young men over many years through his organization. But in 2015, when they began a criminal investigation, he left for Rome. A Peruvian judge is now set to rule on whether to authorize his arrest, which would allow prosecutors to seek his extradition.

Figari has denied the allegations.

Last year, after conducting its own inquiry, the Vatican told Figari not to return to Peru, Vatican documents show. It also ordered his all-male organization, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, to foot the bill for his living expenses, the documents, released by Sodalitium, show.

On Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, said in a statement: “The directive not to return to Peru was issued in order to block any contact of Figari with Sodalitium. The Vatican will in no way oppose Peruvian efforts to detain Figari.”

The scandal has nonetheless cast a pall over the pontiff’s arrival in Peru on Thursday. Francis offered an apology to sexual abuse victims this week in Chile, but many Peruvians are asking: If the pontiff wants to be tough on such crimes, how could the Vatican protect one of its alleged perpetrators?

“That’s how the Church operates, they bring their own ‘home’ as it were, and then there are no consequences,” said Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor who was suspended in 2016 from a commission that Francis announced in 2013, to much fanfare, to establish guidelines for sex-abuse cases. Saunders resigned from the commission last month.

Figari, a layman, stepped down as the leader of Sodalitium in 2010, but he remains a member of the group.

It was one of several communities in Latin America — like the Rev. Fernando Karadima’s El Bosque in Chile — allegedly led by abusive leaders who experts say operated with impunity because the Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, ignored reports of problems. His successors have been accused of moving too slowly to address the issue.

Last week, before his trip to Latin America, Francis ordered a Vatican takeover of Sodalitium, saying he had concerns about its management and finances. But his announcement did not explicitly address victims or abuses.

“This announced intervention does not take care of us, the victims,” said a former member, who said that when he was 15, Figari had anal sex with him several times.

Sodalitium, which commissioned its own investigation in 2016, has laid out chilling details of abuse in a report that it released. The report says that Figari and other members sexually abused at least 19 minors and 17 adults starting in 1975.

The report said Figari had engaged in “multiple acts of sodomy of a minor male,” instructed a man to kiss his penis and touched and hugged members while naked. Figari also knew of three adult members who sexually abused minors, the report said.

“Figari told some of his victims the indecent acts were part of his mystical powers, yoga exercises, or an energy generating technique,” Sodalitium investigators found.

Peruvian prosecutors say too much time has elapsed to bring sex-crime charges. Instead, they say Figari ran a “criminal organization” that preyed on young men, and have asked a judge to approve his arrest. That would allow them to seek his extradition.

In October 2016, Figari, who is now 70, said he was “not aware that there are any victims.” The Vatican later barred him from speaking to the press, the Vatican documents show.

Armando Lengua Balbi, a lawyer for Figari, said his client denied the allegations. He said that Figari was undergoing cancer treatment and that he was “exercising his right to resist” the Peruvian authorities.

“If he comes back, people will lynch him,” Lengua Balbi said.

He said the encounter with Osterling might not even be considered abuse at all.

“This could lead you to think, ‘Well, this man is weird, this is wrong, I shouldn’t have acquiesced, I should have pushed back,'” Lengua Balbi said. “But to accuse someone under the label of a sexual crime or sexual abuse? Asking someone to drop their pants is not a crime. That’s not a crime anywhere in the world.”

He also said the accusations involving the 15-year-old would be impossible to prove in court. “He should have gotten medically examined,” Lengua Balbi said.

Figari was known to his followers as a foul-mouthed, larger-than-life figure.

He founded Sodalitium in the early 1970s on deeply conservative values and the promise of a life of obedience. One of the group’s principles said that “an independent spirit means the death of our community.” Another said “the only thing a Sodalite cannot do is give birth.”

Members occasionally sang “Facing the Sun,” the anthem of the Spanish Falange, a fascist party, recalled Pedro Salinas, a member during the 1980s who in 2015 wrote a book with the journalist Paola Ugaz about the organization.

Like Figari, most members are laymen, but they live together in monasterylike community houses. The group gained a foothold among well-heeled Peruvian families, spreading through Latin America and even to an outpost in Denver. When Francis was still a cardinal, he invited Sodalitium to set up a community in Argentina.

Members recall that during Figari’s heyday, Sodalitium focused on discipline and obedience. Recruits were young, usually 14 to 16.

“When you lived in community, you couldn’t go out on the streets if you didn’t have permission from a superior,” said Martin Scheuch, who was a member for 15 years.

Osterling, who left Sodalitium in 2011, recalls being asked to send Figari photos and videos of young men who were potential recruits saluting him. “Figari supposedly would review the film, look into the kids’ eyes and was able to see their souls,” he said.

Figari would then choose which boys to invite to Sodalitium retreats, where he would send them cryptic messages. “I’ve heard much about you,” he might say, according to a legal complaint filed with prosecutors by former members of the group. Obedience and abuse were often intertwined. Scheuch recalled a night when Figari suddenly told him to put his hands and knees on the floor and lift up his shirt.

“No one could tell him, ‘I’m not going to do that,'” Scheuch said. “That was unthinkable. So I did it, and he called another Sodalite to start whipping my bare back. The Sodalite doubted, so Mr. Figari repeated his order and he whipped me with his belt.”

Salinas recalled Figari once came in with a prospective applicant and made a strange request. He asked for a candle and matches, then asked Salinas to pull up his sleeve and extend his arm.

Figari proceeded to burn him, he said.

“I had my poker face on because I understood implicitly that the point was to impress the prospective applicant,” Salinas said. “I ended up with a big red blister and a bandaged arm for a few days.”

At least 18 people were victims of physical abuse, according to the group’s report.

Figari served as Sodalitium’s superior general until his resignation in 2010. Sodalitium’s internal investigation found that he had left over the abuse revelations. Victims say it took far too long for the allegations to come to light, and say that in many cases their accounts were not believed.

“I’ve given my testimony to countless people in search of justice since 1978,” said the man who accused Figari of sexually abusing him as a teenager. He asked not to be named.

In May 2011, the man filed a complaint with Peru’s ecclesiastical court that was forwarded to the Vatican. More complaints were filed in 2013 and 2014, according to Sodalitium’s internal investigation.

The Vatican finally acted in April 2015, sending a Peruvian bishop to investigate. But it was not until six months later that Sodalitium publicly confronted Figari, when Salinas and Ugaz published their book. By then, Figari had left the country.

In January 2017, the Vatican investigators concluded that Figari had engaged in sexual activity “with some young men,” at least one of who was under 16, who were being trained by the group.

Still, the documents say, the allegations contained “inconsistent timelines, contradictions and some aspects were not very clear.” And it said that investigators were “perplexed by the notable, anomalous and not entirely comprehensive echo” the abuse allegations had generated in Peru.

Lengua Balbi said Figari was appealing the ruling, and had hired two canon lawyers.

The man who says Figari abused him when he was 15 said the Vatican’s investigation was a whitewash.

“The church has never contacted me,” he said. “Never.”