The Vatican has announced that it has taken control of the Sodalitium of Christian Life, a society of consecrated laypeople and priests. The group was founded in Peru in 1971 by a layperson, Luis Fernando Figari, who prosecutors in Peru are now seeking to detain. The move comes just days before Pope Francis begins a visit to Chile and Peru.
Members of the leadership in the society, known by its Latin acronym S.C.V., have been accused of authoritarian lifestyles and financial mismanagement. Its founder and other leaders have been accused of sexually abusing minors in the group. The S.C.V. includes about 20,000 members and is governed by a group of celibate laymen known as “sodalits.”
According to the Holy See press office, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has appointed Msgr. Noel Antonio Londono Buitrago, bishop of Jericó, Colombia, and a member of the Redemptorist order, to oversee the society. It added that Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark and also a Redemptorist, who was previously appointed by Pope Francis as a papal delegate overseeing the reform of the S.C.V., will continue in that role, “particularly in relation to economic questions.”
A journalist and former member of the society began publicly accusing Mr. Figari of abuse in 2010. While Mr. Figari had never been charged, many of the allegations were confirmed by a Vatican inquiry. He was ordered to cut contact with members of the society and has been living in Rome.
The Vatican said Francis was “particularly concerned about the seriousness of information about the internal regime, the training and financial management.”
In the statement, the Vatican said Francis had followed the Sodalitium saga for years, had asked that the congregation pay particular attention to it and was “particularly concerned about the seriousness of information about the internal regime, the training and financial management.”
The Vatican said the congregation had decided on the “commissioning” of the society after the recent moves by Peruvian prosecutors to seek to arrest Mr. Figari and a “profound analysis of all the documentation.”
Some of Sodalitium's victims have denounced the Vatican's handling of the case, saying the six-year delay in taking any action and subsequently allowing Mr. Figari to live in retirement in Rome was anything but satisfactory.
Mr. Figari founded the society as a lay community to recruit “soldiers for God.”
Mr. Figari founded the society as a lay community to recruit “soldiers for God.” It was one of several Catholic societies born as a conservative reaction to the left-leaning liberation theology movement that swept through Latin America starting in the 1960s.
Mr. Figari was a charismatic intellectual, but he was also "narcissistic, paranoid, demeaning, vulgar, vindictive, manipulative, racist, sexist, elitist and obsessed with sexual issues and the sexual orientation of S.C.V. members," according to a 2017 investigative report commissioned by the society's new leadership.
The report, by two Americans and an Irish expert in abuse, found that Mr. Figari sodomized his recruits and forced them to fondle him and one another. He liked to watch them "experience pain, discomfort and fear" and humiliated them in front of others to enhance his control over them, the report found.
In April 2015, the Vatican congregation appointed Bishop Fortunato Urcey of Chota, Peru, as an apostolic administrator to investigate charges of improper conduct by Mr. Figari. His work concluded in March 2016.
The pope appointed Cardinal Tobin, then archbishop of Indianapolis, to observe the reform of the order in May 2016. In January 2017, the congregation decreed that Mr. Fiagri should have no more contact with the S.C.V., following Bishop Urcey’s report, which said that as superior-general Mr. Figari had adopted a style of government that was “excessively and improperly authoritarian, directed to impose one’s own will” and that to get S.C.V. members to obey him had “used improper strategies and methods of persuasion,” described as “underhanded, arrogant and...violent and disrespectful of the right to inviolability of one’s interiority and discretion.”
Mr. Figari resigned as superior-general in 2010. Two Peruvian bishops are former members of the group. The S.C.V. maintains communities and membership throughout South America, Italy and in the United States.
The S.C.V. scandal has parallels with that of the Mexico-based Legion of Christ religious order, whose charismatic founder, Marcial Maciel, was a favorite of St. John Paul II. He was found to be a serial pedophile who sexually abused his seminarians, fathered three children and built a secretive, cult-like organization to hide his double life. The Vatican sanctioned him in 2006 after documentation about his abuse languished for decades in the same congregation that received the S.C.V. complaints years ago and finally took over the society on Jan. 10.
With reporting by Nicole Winfield from the Associated Press.