Lima, Peru, Feb 14, 2017 / 03:13 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A two-part report made public on Tuesday detail sexual, physical and psychological abuses committed by members of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, both those who have left the community and those who remain in it.

In addition to the movement’s founder, Luis Fernando Figari, four other Sodalits were reported to have sexually abused minors. The report named the other offenders, none of whom are still part of the community. Seven of the Sodalits “who were identified as having physically or psychologically abused” another member or a person in formation are still in the community and performing external ministry. They have had administrative actions taken against them and are receiving training. The report did not give their names.

The Sodalitium Christianae Vitae is a society of apostolic life which was founded in 1971 in Peru, and granted pontifical recognition in 1997. CNA's executive director, Alejandro Bermúdez, and its global director of operations, Ryan Thomas, are both members of the community.

The first report released Tuesday detailed the acts of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse reported to have been committed by Figari, as well as reported sexual abuse by four former Sodalits. No current members of the Sodalitium except for Figari, who has been barred from community life and contact with other members, have been reported to have committed sexual abuse of minors.

The second report discussed other kinds of abuse perpetrated by Sodalits, the harm done, the community's responses to the allegations, accountability measures and its ongoing work to prevent future abuse. It also described some of the causes of the abuse, the difficulties in reporting it, and the past and present culture of the Sodalitium.

“We again ask forgiveness from each person that has been hurt by a member or a former member of the Sodalitium,” said Superior General Alessandro Moroni Llabres upon the release of the report. “We are committed to a process of self-examination and of change.”

The reports were authored by Kathleen McChesney of Kinsale Management Consulting; Monica Applewhite of Confianza, LLC; and Ian Elliott of Ian Elliott Safeguarding. “It is the professional opinion of the reviewers that the incidents of abuse described in this report occurred,” the text noted. “However, this opinion does not represent an investigatory conclusion, nor does it constitute the findings of a legal or canonical proceeding.”

Figari’s abuses

Figari, in addition to being the founder and long-time superior general of the Sodalits, was also spiritual director to many of the members. According to the report, he “used his leadership status to have authoritarian direction and control of most Sodalits,” and he was able “to abuse some young members and aspirants of the SCV community.”

“It is clear that Figari sexually abused at least one minor male, sexually abused or sexually manipulated several other young men, and physically or psychologically abused dozens of others, including those he sexually abused,” the report stated, adding that he knew of three other Sodalits who sexually abused minors. In addition to sexual abuse, Figari sexually manipulated several young men – he used his authority to cause the victims to act in a sexual manner, but in a way that did not rise to the level of sexual abuse.

Figari's sexual abuse and manipulation at times “occurred under the auspices of Figari’s providing spiritual advice to the victims,” the report said, and he sometimes told the victims the acts “were part of his mystical powers.” It began as early as 1975, when Figari molested a 15 year old boy, who “was afraid to report his abuse to the SCV or civil authorities because Figari, as the founder of the SCV, was the most powerful person in the SCV community.” Figari also committed physical abuse; he has been widely described as “appearing to enjoy observing the younger aspirants and brothers experience pain, discomfort and fear.” He reportedly burned an individual with a candle, and menaced members with his dog, allowing it to bite them at times. As superior general until 2010, Figari was also responsible for the formation of Sodalits, which was extremely physically demanding. “Numerous witnesses described the formation program that Figari developed as being modeled after military training techniques depicted in movies that he regularly watched,” read the report.

Formatees were thus “subjected to continuous, strenuous, unnecessary and, often, unrealistic physical requirements,” such as swimming in cold ocean waters for several hours at a time, running long distances in inclement weather, and performing difficult exercises for extended periods of time. Physical abuse was also used as a disciplinary measure: those in formation were made to sleep on stairways for many nights at a time, to stay awake all night in chapel, or were denied food or water.

Furthermore, Figari committed psychological abuse, the report said – while some Sodalits regarded him as kind and paternal, he was also “frequently described by both former and current Sodalits as narcissistic, paranoid, demeaning, vulgar, vindictive, manipulative, racist, sexist, elitist, and obsessed with sexual issues” and sexual orientation. He was also described “as an arrogant man who treated many of the Sodalits as his servants.” His closest aids “typically worked 12-14 hours each day,” and if they “did not anticipate or respond quickly to his requests, or if they made even the smallest mistake, Figari would criticize and berate them in front of each other.”

In addition to Figari, four other (now former) Sodalits committed reported sexual abuse of minors: Germán Doig Klinge, Virgilio Levaggi Vega, Jeffrey Daniels Valderrama, and Daniel Murguía Ward. This occurred between 1975 and 2007. Three of these offenders, including Figari, also sexually abused adults. No conspiracy among the alleged abusers was found.

Other types of abuse

The second report discussed abuse by Sodalits which was not sexual abuse of minors, but which victimized Sodalits, members of the Sodalitium family, and young people who participated in youth groups associated with the community. “Physical and psychological abuse of aspirants and Sodalits was more prevalent than sexual abuse,” the report noted, and it occurred most often during “aspirance” or formation.

One testimony included in the report described an older Sodalit holding a small knife to a younger member’s throat, and forcing him to eat bowls of salt and ketchup until he became physically ill. Several others recalled members being instructed to hit one another. Not every member experienced abuse, but many of those who did have suffered continuing psychological and spiritual harm, and some have suffered financially after leaving the community, failing to find steady employment because “their superiors prevented them from receiving a professional education.” Some even lost their belief in God.

The majority of Sodalits “were, and are, pious and of good, moral character, and attracted by the Gospel and the positive aspects of the SCV’s culture,” the report said, and “it was not the SCV’s culture that caused the offenders to commit acts of abuse,” although some authorities in the organization permitted or encouraged these abuses.  

But while the organization’s original goals were admirable, it said, many members “reported a significant measure of the organization’s focus and energies shifted from these goals to increasing its power and influence in the Catholic Church.” This resulted in practices which “overemphasized vocations, cultivating relationships with influential members of the Catholic hierarchy and influential members of the communities they served, and protection of the SCV’s reputation.”

“Many former Sodalits felt pressured to join or stay in the SCV, not because they had a true vocation but, rather, to increase the size of the SCV and to impress the Catholic hierarchy in South America and the Holy See.” The report described a culture of secrecy where “new members were directed to distance themselves from their families,” as well as promises of “total obedience,” by which “some Sodalits felt pressured to obey their superiors in all matters, even when they were directed to treat their brothers in ways that were destructive to their physical or mental well-being.”

In 1998, Figari demanded that formation become more rigorous, and a new superior installed at this time is the subject of most reports of severe physical and psychological abuse. Formators continued to make “unnecessary physical demands and put psychological pressures on the students” until 2010, according to the report. The report attributed the lack of training and formal requirements for formators to be at the root of much of the physical and psychological abuse, noting that the superiors and formators “were mostly young, inexperienced and immature.”

Victims – often young adults – were afraid to come forward, the report said, “especially because their offenders were in more senior, powerful positions, or were their spiritual directors.” “Until 2016, there was no formal, confidential, neutral process for addressing allegations and when victims did report abuse, the SCV’s lack of policies and protocols in these matters resulted in inconsistent responses from the authorities.”

It noted that “a few subordinates are still fearful of complaining to SCV authorities, even confidentially” and that there is currently “no formal complaint or conflict resolution process within the SCV to manage grievances and disagreements.” “Until such a process is in place, personnel management problems are likely to disrupt some of the work of the SCV,” the report said.

In total, sexual abuse or manipulation against adults was committed by seven Sodalits, the report said: 14 men and three women were sexually abused, and 14 men were sexually manipulated. These acts occurred between 1975 and 2009. Only two remain in community life: one has been removed from all external ministry, and one performs restricted ministry. Another Sodalit who has demonstrated inappropriate behavior with adults and minors is not allowed to have external ministry, is prohibited from being alone or working with minors, and is being monitored by persons of authority.

Physical and psychological abuse by Sodalits occurred between 1971 and 2010, the report said. At least 18 Sodalits and aspirants have reported they were physically and/or psychologically abused by 11 Sodalits – though this figure “does not include one brother who was reported to have verbally harassed several persons. This brother has acknowledged his anger issues and is being assisted and closely monitored by SCV authorities.”

Two of those who committed physical or psychological abuse have left the Sodalitium. Of the nine who remain in the community, four were superiors or formators but have been removed from those positions; two of the nine do not currently perform external ministry. Sodalit authorities “have taken administrative actions against them that are appropriate to their offenses with the goal of preventing future abuse and ensuring that the men are held responsible for their abusive behavior. Each offender has been, or will be provided with, specific training regarding the conduct expected of a Sodalit.”

While this abuse largely occurred in the 1980s and '90s, “there are a few current members who feel that some senior Sodalits still do not treat them with respect or have anger management problems,” the report said. The community’s superiors are addressing these matters.  

The Sodalitium’s response

Figari's sexual abuse was first reported to another Sodalit authority in 2002, and other victims first submitted formal complaints to ecclesial or civil authorities in 2011. The victim who reported his abuse in 2002 did not want to provide a written testimony or begin a formal canonical process against Figari, according to the report.

The allegation made in May 2011 was made to Lima's interdiocesan tribunal, which forwarded it to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Two other allegations were forwarded to the congregation by September 2011. The then-superior general of the Sodalits, Eduardo Regal Villa, heard of allegations and became concerned about Figari's behavior and actions. Regal directed Figari to withdraw from public life, but “the other members of the community did not know of these measures and thought that Figari retired because of health issues.”

Regal visited Rome to meet with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life in November 2011 and October 2012 to discuss the canonical case against Figari, and also pursued the issue with the archdiocese and tribunal of Lima. Much of the Sodalits' handling of the allegations of Figari's sexual abuse has occurred under the leadership of Moroni, who was elected superior general in December 2012.

In 2015, an apostolic visitor was appointed to the community, and an ethics commission was created to investigate and offer proposals surrounding the accusations of abuse against Figari. The following year, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark was appointed the Vatican's delegate to oversee ongoing reform of the Sodalits. Tobin had been secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life from August 2010 until Oct 2012.

In January the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae announced that 66 persons can be considered victims of abuse of mistreatment by members of the community, and that it has set aside more than $2.8 million in reparations and assistance for victims. Figari was also barred from contacting members of the community. The report found that the Sodalitium had sometimes offered an “ineffective or non-existent response” to allegations, which allowed abuses to continue.

The community lacked procedures for responding to allegations until 2016. Some Sodalits “would try to convince the victims that what they had experienced was not abuse, or they would accuse the victims of lying,” the report said, noting that some members believed the community’s response to be driven by a desire to protect its own reputation.

Moving forward

In 2016, a review team made 35 recommendations to promote a safer environment in the Sodalitium, all of which have been accepted by the community. Several have already been completed. Ongoing recommendations including providing Sodalit authorities with training to respond to abuse allegations; better records and reports; screening of new members; reviewing the formation process; offering abuse awareness and prevention training; determining the role that leaders who failed to respond to reports of abuse have in the future of the congregation; enhancing communication and transparency; and allowing external reviews.

Recommendations whose implementation are pending are the establishment of a review board to evaluate abuse allegations; establishing a policy regarding social media, texting, and other communications with minors, aspirants, and formatees; establishing and publishing a code of conduct for members and consequences for misconduct; developing guidelines for suitability for ministry; designating an ombudsman to assist members in dealing with grievances; establishing a policy to communicate with various audiences regarding abuse reporting.

The Sodalits’ Superior Council has also accepted the review team’s 14 recommendations for current members who have harmed others in the past. Consistent with best practices and canonical guidelines, recommendations regarding specific individuals are confidential, the report said.

Turning to the future of the Sodalitium, the report said that most victims interviewed “hope to see the community fundamentally changed for the better and recognize that some constructive changes have taken place in the discernment and formation process,” though some would prefer to see the institution “suppressed or disbanded … they continue to distrust the community and seriously doubt that it has the ability to change.”

According to the report, the Sodalitium's culture “has evolved in positive ways in the past decade,” and that the militaristic emphasis and that on impressing the hierarchy “are no longer evident” in its daily works. Discernment is now a more free process. Candidates are encouraged to finish college before entering formation, and “today's formators and superiors treat the students with respect and dignity.”