Is the Vatican about to Dissolve the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae?

The Sodalitium Christianae Vitae is a society of apostolic life which was founded in 1971 in Peru, and granted pontifical recognition in 1997.

Sodalitium Christianae Vitae Logo
Sodalitium Christianae Vitae Logo (photo: National Catholic Register/ / CNA)

In the most recent of a series of articles on the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, the online newspaper Crux suggests that the Vatican's decision to “dissolve” the society of apostolic life founded in Peru half a century ago may be imminent.

In the article "Victims’ lawyer says scandal-plagued lay group could soon be dissolved," journalist Elise Ann Allen interviews Peruvian lawyer José Ugaz, who, together with his law firm Benites, Vargas & Ugaz in Lima, Peru, handles the legal matters in the Peruvian judicial system involving accusations by the victims of members of the Sodalitium.

Allen, the wife of John Allen Jr., the founder and director of Crux, was linked to the Marian Fraternity of Reconciliation, one of the communities founded by Luis Fernando Figari (who also founded the Sodalitium), and began her journalistic career at Catholic News Agency, first in Denver and then in Rome.

In his interview with Crux, Ugaz said the victims he represents are “​​very interested in the dissolution of this institution, which has had a criminal vocation among the highest ranks of its leadership.”

“We also know that at the level of the church, this is being evaluated and it’s possible that the church will make a decision in the coming months,” Ugaz said.

The Sodalitium Christianae Vitae is a society of apostolic life which was founded in 1971 in Peru, and granted pontifical recognition in 1997. Catholic News Agency’s executive director, Alejandro Bermúdez, is a member of the community.

ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish language sister news agency, contacted Ugaz and his assistant for an explanation of their confidence in the dissolution of the society. However, after three days and as of press time, the lawyer had not responded to the query from ACI Prensa.

Sources close to the case told ACI Prensa that the information about the supposed dissolution of the SVC may come from Chilean activist Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of sexual abuse by the late former priest Fernando Karadima, and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, appointed by Pope Francis in March 2021.

ACI Prensa emailed Cruz March 29 to confirm or deny these versions of the situation, but has not received a response.

Responding to questions sent by ACI Prensa, the SVC pointed out in an email that the Vatican has accompanied it “in various ways, particularly since 2015,” when numerous cases of abuse by the SVC’s founder, Luis Fernando Figari, and former members of the community, were made public in the book “Half Monks, Half Soldiers” written by Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz.

“Currently the Sodalitium has three delegates appointed by the Holy See, with whom there is frequent dialogue. This (dissolution) has not been discussed as possible,”  the SCV’s written response to ACI Prensa stated.

“The Holy Father has never stated that this is his intention; neither in the last audience that he had with the Superior General in 2021,” the Sodalitium’s response added.

As a society of lay apostolic life of pontifical right, the SCV depends directly on the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

After the publication of “Half Monks, Half Soldiers,” the Holy See appointed Bishop Fortunato Pablo Urcey, Prelate of Chota, as Apostolic Visitor to investigate the complaints against Figari in Peru, and he sent his report to Rome in April 2016. 

In its responses to ACI Prensa, the Sodalitium recalled that “in May 2016 the Holy See appointed Cardinal Joseph Tobin, current archbishop of Newark, NJ as Delegate to guide the governing of the Sodalitium. Finally, in January 2018, the Holy See appointed the bishop of Jericó, Colombia, Noel Londoño, as Pontifical Commissioner for the Sodalitium, and Friar Guillermo Rodríguez, OFM, as Deputy Commissioner.”

“The commissioner is the highest level of intervention in a community, because it entails the cessation of all authority of the Sodalitium,” the SVC explained.

During this process, Figari, who had already left his position as superior general, was found guilty of multiple cases of sexual and psychological abuse and removed from community life. Further punitive measures, such as his expulsion from the community he founded, are in the hands of the Holy See.

“The Commissioner and his Deputy directed the community up to its Fifth General Assembly, which was held in Aparecida, Brazil, in January 2019. After the election of new authorities and the application of operational modifications requested by the Holy See, Bishop Londoño, before the image of Our Lady of Aparecida, officially announced the end of the SCV being under the commissioner.”

As the Sodalitium explained to ACI Prensa, the Holy See has continued to accompany the community, through three assistants: for governance, Fray Guillermo Rodríguez; for formation, Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ; and for temporal affairs, Cardinal Tobin.

Among her various articles on the SVC, Allen regularly cites Paola Ugaz, a correspondent in Lima for the Spanish newspaper ABC, and co-author of “Half Monks, Half Soldiers.” In her article “Victims’ lawyer says scandal-plagued lay group could soon be dissolved,” Allen asserts that Ugaz “has faced an onslaught of legal complaints from individuals and organizations associated with the SCV.”

Peruvian judicial authorities are investigating Ugaz for money laundering, an accusation that has to do with her time as the “Head of Social Media” for the Metropolitan Municipality of Lima, between January 2013 and January 2014, during the administration of former socialist mayor Susana Villarán.

Villarán spent two years in pretrial detention between 2019 and 2021, and is currently under subpoena while investigations continue into alleged illicit links with the construction companies Odebrecht, OAS, and Graña y Montero.

According to the Peruvian newspaper Expreso, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered at the beginning of this year that the investigations of Ugaz and others suspected of “belonging to an alleged criminal network” along with Villarán be extended until 2023.

In an unrelated case, the other author of “Half Monks, Half Soldiers,” Pedro Salinas, a former member of the Sodalitium, is also being investigated by the Peruvian Prosecutor's Office, for allegedly having unduly benefited from a contract for a “communications consultancy” with the Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2018.

Both Ugaz and Salinas have stated in various Peruvian and international media that their current legal problems are a “conspiracy” by the SCV; that the situation within the Sodalitium hasn’t changed since the publication of their book, and they have alleged financial mismanagement within the institution.

The response from the SCV denies any connection with the legal problems of the authors and that "the current authorities (of the SCV), chosen because they didn’t maintain any relationship with Luis Fernando Figari, have promoted a particular concern for the spiritual life, safe environments for fraternal life and the apostolic works and projects continue to be promoted.”

"The authorities have also ensured compliance with the decrees and guidelines that the Fifth General Assembly of the SCV entrusted them to carry out, among which stand out the beginning of a review process of the current constitutions, the preparation of the document of the Ratio Formationis, the priority concern for the initial formation of community members, where the issues of abuse prevention and good practices stand out, among others.”

In this process, the current superior general of the SVC, José David Correa, “meets regularly with the authorities of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (CICLSAL) During this period of government, he has visited these authorities on several occasions to keep them up to date on the progress of the community.”

“In October 2021, the Superior had a private audience with the Holy Father, where he was able to inform Pope Francis about the progress of the community in the most relevant aspects,” the institution added.

The Sodalitium pointed out that “at that same time,” during a week of work in Rome together with the Secretary of the CICLSAL, Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, Father Ghirlanda said that "without a doubt I see progress in the work” and that things are proceeding “quite calmly in the Commission. It seems to me that this first part is quite mature and that is why I am happy and I feel positive in regard to the work of the Commission. We have worked well.”

The statement “strongly rejects” the various accusations of financial mismanagement in the Sodalitium “as it considers them tendentious, biased, and for not responding to the truth of the facts.”

“Within all the pastoral and financial activities carried out by the SCV or any of the related institutions, it has always sought to serve the mission of the Church. It is absolutely false that in some case a ‘mechanism’ has been created to commit crimes, defrauding the Peruvian treasury," the statement noted.

“Nor has there been tax evasion, even less money laundering, or an illicit exploitation of Peru’s Church-State accord (Concordat). It’s also not true that related institutions have abused some poor peasants for illicit enrichment through land trafficking,” the SCV stated.

The clarification responds to accusations made by Paola Ugaz, who has been announcing the publication of an upcoming book focusing on the alleged “financial corruption” in the SCV. Salinas is preparing a new collection of complaints against the Peruvian community by former members.

The Sodalitium stressed that "our response is based on consistent legal information, in addition to the financial and administrative information resulting from the activities of the SCV and its related institutions, which has been audited annually for more than a decade, and is presented to the delegated authorities of the Holy See regularly.”

“These authorities have also received complete and exhaustive reports from independent experts on the financial history of the Sodalitium. Therefore, it is false that financial activities are carried out behind the back of the Church.”

“In addition, many of the related institutions have undergone exhaustive due diligence processes by renowned international institutions, with excellent results,” the statement by the Sodalitium of Christian Life concluded.