Sunday, July 30, 2023

Vatican investigators meet Peru prelate accused of land trafficking


As part of their ongoing probe into a scandal-plagued lay group in Peru, the Vatican’s top investigating duo has met with a Peruvian archbishop accused of land trafficking, as well as a group of peasants his community is alleged to have harassed.

Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu are currently in Lima, Peru, conducting an investigation into the Sodalitium Christinae Vitae (SCV), a society of apostolic life founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s.

Though allegations were made several years prior, scandals involving the SCV exploded in 2015, when Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz published their book Half Monks, Half Soldiers detailing years of alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse by members of the SCV.

Figari himself was accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse within the community, including against minors. He was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group, and he is currently living in exile.

After years of attempted reform efforts which victims and former members of the group charge have been largely useless, Pope Francis sent Scicluna and Bertomeu, widely considered to be the Vatican’s most competent investigators, to look into the SCV.

As part of their inquiries, Scicluna and Bertomeu Thursday met with a group of peasant farmers from the San Juan Bautista of Catacaos rural community in Piura, who have accused various organizations and associations affiliated with the SCV of legal harassment and the dispossession of ancestral lands for the sake of profit.

They were joined by Jennie Dador, executive secretary of the National Coordinator of Human Rights (CNDDHH) in Peru.

Later that day, Scicluna and Bertomeu met with Archbishop José Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru, who is a prominent member of the SCV and who has been accused of land trafficking in Piura, including the land belonging to the Catacaos community.

Eguren also infamously slapped both Salinas and Ugaz with criminal defamation suits related to their reporting, but later retracted that after facing public backlash and pressure from the rest of the Peruvian Church hierarchy.

(In the Peruvian system, private citizens can register a criminal complaint for defamation.)

He filed the lawsuits against Salinas and Ugaz in July 2018, just three years after the publication of their 2015 book, taking issue with investigative reports in which they named him as not only complicit in the SCV’s abuses and coverup efforts, but also land trafficking.

Pope Francis met Eguren, who has presided over the Archdiocese of Piura since 2006, in a private audience at the Vatican in September 2018. The Vatican never disclosed the nature of the meeting, but it is widely believed that his criminal suits against Salinas and Ugaz were at least part of the motivation behind it.

A year later, shortly after winning his case against Salinas, which was tried in Piura, Eguren retracted his complaints against both Salinas and Ugaz amid an avalanche of public, media, and ecclesial criticism, including a statement from the Peruvian bishops condemning his actions and in which they claimed to have the pope’s backing.

Eguren met Pope Francis at the Vatican in March 2022, as Ugaz was publishing further reports on land trafficking in the Piura area by organizations associated with the SCV.

Despite the fact that Eguren dropped his case against Ugaz, who is preparing a book detailing alleged financial misdeeds within the SCV, she has continued to receive legal notices from individuals with ties to the SCV, most of whom accuse her of defamation.

One case against her, which accused her of money laundering and bribery, was recently tossed out by judicial authorities, who said the allegations were baseless.

Among the items cited in Eguren’s original complaint against Ugaz were her allegations of criminal activity in the purchase of a large patch of land in Piura by the San Juan Bautista Civil Association and involvement with the criminal group La Gran Cruz in the process.

For years, a legal battle has been unfolding in Piura between a group of farmers and a handful of companies either operated by or with ties to the SCV, including the San Juan Bautista Civil Association, the Empresa Agrícola Santa Regina SAC, and the Inversiones San Jose.

In Peru and throughout much of Latin America, it is common for peasants and members of the poorer classes to establish roots on a piece of inexpensive land and live there undisturbed for decades, or even hundreds of years, while having no formal title to the land on which they live, usually due to a lack of money or legal support.

Often, companies who want to buy up the land will strike a deal with the titleholder and essentially run the inhabitants out of town through threats and, at times, violence carried out by criminal groups.

In the province of Piura, one of these communities is a group of farmers in the town of Catacaos who are battling both threats from criminal groups and legal suits by companies of the SCV who wish to buy up the land they occupy.

Since 2012, leaders of the Catacaos community have been complaining about harassment and violence from companies associated with the SCV.

Given the authority he holds in the region and within the SCV, Eguren has been at the center of many of the accusations and has been accused of being an architect of various schemes to oust the farmers from their land.

Ugaz previously told Crux that one of the leaders of the Catacaos community, Marcelino Ynga, was fighting a legal battle launched by organizations tied to the SCV in which he was called a terrorist and accused of criminal intent.

Further legal complaints have been filed by the SCV-affiliated organizations against an additional 12-13 members of Ynga’s community, and there are around 20 such cases in total in Piura. Once the businesses acquire the land they are seeking, they allow other companies to use it for economic activities.

In her book on SCV finances, the publication of which has repeatedly been delayed due to the ounslaught of legal complaints against her, Ugaz charges that a company with ties to the SCV purchased a cemetery plot in Piura.

In the purchase, she said, the SCV-affiliated company wrote it off as a donation to the archdiocese of Piura but remained the legal managers of the property, thus securing the lower tax rate that comes with being a property of the Catholic Church, while reaping the profits.

Scicluna and Bertomeu met with six members of the Catacaos farming community at the nunciature in Peru Thursday morning, hearing their account of what they claim are violations against their fundamental rights and efforts to dispossess them of their ancestral lands.

Eguren arrived later that afternoon to provide his own account of the situation.

On Wednesday, a day prior, Scicluna and Bertomeu met with a second SCV bishop, Kay Schmalhausen, who in 2021 stepped down from his post in Ayaviri to care for his ailing mother.

In the past, Schmalhausen, who left the SCV in 2018, at the same time Eguren’s lawsuits against Salinas and Ugaz were being carried forward, has called for the perpetrators of both sexual abuse and coverup to be excommunicated.