Vatican ‘007’ back in Peru to continue probe of scandal-plagued groups

Crux [Denver CO]

March 4, 2024

By Elise Ann Allen

An announcement is expected today by the Archdiocese of Lima in Peru that one member of the Vatican’s top investigating duo, Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, is back in the country to continue inquiries into a scandal-plagued group.

An official of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bertomeu last summer traveled to Lima alongside the department’s adjunct secretary, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to interview members of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV).

A “society of apostolic life” under church law, and the largest ecclesial lay movement in Peru, the SCV was founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in 1971.

RELATED: Vatican’s top abuse investigators begin probe of scandal-plagued Peru group

Shortly after Scicluna and Bertomeu’s visit in late July and early August 2023, allegations of financial wrongdoing arose surrounding another Peru-based community, Pro Ecclesia Sancta (PES), an institute of consecrated life of diocesan rite founded by Spanish Jesuit Father Pablo Menor in 1992.

A spiritual family comprised of priests, laity, and men and women religious, PES is dedicated to promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In addition to Peru, they also have a footprint in the United States, Italy, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Spain.

Dubbed the Vatican’s “007,” Scicluna and Bertomeu are widely considered to be the Vatican’s most credible investigators, with a track record including several high-profile abuse cases, such as the investigation into the Legionaries of Christ and its founder, the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado; the explosive clerical sexual abuse scandals in Chile involving the late ex-priest Fernando Karadima; as well as abuse crises in countless other countries across the world.

Last year, Bertomeu traveled to several other South and Central American nations to handle specific abuse cases, including Bolivia, Honduras, and Paraguay. In Paraguay, he and Brazilian Cardinal Orani João Tempesta made inquiries into the case of Belén Whittingslow, one among many on the growing list of adults abused in the church.

A former student at the Catholic University of Asunción, Whittingslow accused her professor, Cristian Kriskovich, of repeated sexual harassment online through explicit messages and images. However, her civil case was dismissed, and she eventually faced legal charges herself for allegedly fabricating documentation and for damages to Kriskovich, forcing her to flee to Uruguay, where she has sought refugee status.

Bertomeu’s current visit to Peru is a solo act, and his primary focus will reportedly be to investigate PES for fraud allegations.

In October 2023 a Peruvian television program published a report accusing the community of running a scam when they failed to repay a $1.2 million loan to a wealthy retired businessman.

That businessman, Fernando Reyes Hernández, said he had given the money to the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish run by PES in 2017, money he said had come from the sale of his company and savings from over 60 years of work.

He said the funds had been transferred by loan with signed contracts, yet by 2019 he had received no repayment. In total, Hernández said four contracts and ten addendums had been signed because previous contracts expired with the community paying nothing back.

According to sources inside the Archdiocese of Lima, beyond Reyes Hernández, dozens of other individuals claim to have been defrauded by PES.

Although his visit to Lima is primarily to investigate the allegations of financial corruption against PES, sources in Peru have told Crux that the investigation into the SCV is ongoing, and that measures have recently been taken against several prominent members.

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

Figari was accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses within the community, including against minors, and 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 several failed attempts at reform and multiple rounds of temporary leadership with Vatican-appointed delegates overseeing the process, victims charge that little has changed and that the internal culture remains the same, with corruption running deep amongst elite members while abusers and those who have covered up for various abuses continue their ministry unimpeded.

During last year’s inquiries, Scicluna and Bertomeu met with both victims of the SCV and its leadership, as well as a politician who published a formal parliamentary inquiry into the SCV, and a group of peasant farmers who have accused SCV Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren of corruption and land trafficking.

RELATED: Vatican investigators meet Peru prelate accused of land trafficking

Sources in Peru have told Crux that as part of its ongoing inquiry into the SCV, the Vatican has sent out a series of letters containing allegations against at least eight high-ranking members, giving SCV authorities 45 days to respond with the punitive measures they plan to impose.

Individuals mentioned in these letters include Figari himself; José Ambrozic, who for several years lived in Denver, Co., but who now resides in Philadelphia and is accused among other things of physical abuse and abuse coverup; and Eduardo Regal, who is currently superior of the SCV’s Denver community and who is also accused of physical abuse and the coverup of child pornography, among other things.

Another SCV Denver resident who is the subject of one of the Vatican letters is Alejandro Bermúdez, a journalist and former head of the EWTN-owned ACI Group, an international media conglomerate that includes the English-language Catholic News Agency website. He now runs the website Catholic Vote.

Other SCV members who were subjects of the Vatican’s letters are Óscar Tokumura and Edwin Scheuch, who are accused of physical abuse and abuse coverup, among other things; Father Luis Ferroggiaro, who is accused of abusing a minor; and Miguel Salazar, who is accused of covering up for notorious SCV child abuser, Jeffrey Daniels.

In is unclear when the Vatican’s case involving the SCV will conclude, however, the fact that several letters have already been sent implies that the preliminary phase of the Vatican’s investigation has concluded, and that initial steps are being taken.

An SCV spokesman did not respond to a Crux request for comment.

Editor’s Note: From September 2013 to July 2018, Elise Ann Allen was Rome Correspondent for the Catholic News Agency, which at the time was directed by Alejandro Bermúdez.