By Junno Arocho Esteves Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — A network of clergy abuse survivors has joined calls for an end to lawsuits against a journalist who investigated alleged sexual abuse and financial irregularities within a controversial Catholic group.
In an open letter released Jan. 9, the Ending Clergy Abuse organization, also known as ECA, expressed concern regarding five lawsuits against Peruvian journalist Paola Ugaz by several members of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae.
The lawsuits, the ECA said, are a form of “judicial harassment” meant to punish Ugaz for exposing alleged criminal activities within Sodalitium.
“It is true that we recognize the legitimate right of every person who feels that his or her honor was damaged to take legal action,” the group said. “However, it is unlawful for anyone to abuse this right. In the abusive case of legal actions against Paola Ugaz, it is clear the intention is not to seek justice but to silence her.”
Ugaz and fellow journalist Pedro Salinas co-authored a book titled, “Mitad Monjes, Mitad Soldados” (“Half Monks, Half Soldiers”), which detailed the alleged psychological and sexual abuse, as well as corporal punishment and extreme exercises that young members of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae were forced to endure.
A 2017 internal investigation found that Luis Fernando Figari, who founded Sodalitium in 1971 and headed it until 2010, and three other high-ranking former members abused 19 minors and 10 adults.
“I thank ECA with all my heart for this support because it comes at the right time and gives me a lot of encouragement to keep going,” Ugaz told Catholic News Service Jan. 9.
She also received the support of Peruvian Archbishop Carlos Castillo of Lima who said Ugaz was “a journalist of great importance.” The archbishop challenged the members of the group who are suing her, saying: “If those Christians truly believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, they must stop” the lawsuits.
In an interview Dec. 14 with RPP, the Peruvian radio and television company, Archbishop Castillo said he was concerned that the continuing lawsuits against Ugaz by members of Sodalitium were an attempt “to cover up the truth.”
“If we want to use trickery, power, social or economic relationships or influence to hide the terrible things we do, then we are not true Christians and we do not give a witness of service, which is what Jesus came to do,” the archbishop said.
By suing Ugaz, he added, members of Sodalitium “are delaying too much to confront and solve something that is very serious, which is the destruction of people in our country, our middle class, who they have damaged psychologically and humanly. This isn’t possible! This must change and they cannot shackle the truth.”
Ugaz told CNS she also has received “support and solidarity” from Archbishop Nicola Girasoli, apostolic nuncio to Peru.
Archbishops Castillo and Girasoli, she said, “have been following this wave of persecution against me. I am infinitely grateful to both for their solidarity with my work as an investigative journalist.”
The lawsuits against her, she alleges, are being used to hamper her investigations and prevent the publication of a new book detailing financial irregularities within Sodalitium. She hopes to publish the book this year.
Ugaz told CNS she has been harassed publicly and received numerous letters threatening further lawsuits against her by Sodalitium members due to her investigative reports as well as her participation in an Al-Jazeera documentary, titled “The Sodalitium Scandal.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that this new lawsuit (filed in December) is related to my investigation into Sodalitium’s finances,” she told CNS. “All the complaints that have been made have the same objective: to harass me, to intimidate me, to take up my time in responding to the complaints, to show me that responding to Sodalitium will drain my finances and that I stop concentrating on my current investigation.”
Both Ugaz and Salinas were sued in 2019 by Archbishop Jose Eguren Anselmi of Piura, a professed member of Sodalitium since 1981. The prelate later dropped the lawsuit against Salinas in April and Ugaz in August after facing considerable backlash by the public and the Peruvian bishops’ conference.
Citing Pope Francis, the country’s bishops distanced themselves from Archbishop Eguren’s lawsuit and said the church needs the help of journalists and survivors of clergy sex abuse to overcome the current crisis.
Ugaz said she admires the pope’s efforts to combat clergy sex abuse as well as his closeness with survivors who have also supported her throughout her ordeal.
“My answer to Sodalitium’s lawsuits will always be the same: more and better journalism,” she said.