Pope Lauds Peru’s Young, but Stays Silent on Church Sex Abuse

By Marcelo Rochabrún And Andrea Zarate
New York Times
January 21, 2018

Pope Francis arriving to celebrate Mass at Las Palmas Air Base in Lima, Peru, on Sunday.
Photo by Karel Navarro

On the last day of his visit here, Pope Francis told Peruvians that they lived in a “sainted land” and commended young people for keeping their faith in the church.

But he did not address the elephant in the room: a scandal involving a powerful Roman Catholic group here, where dozens of former members say they were physically and sexually abused after dedicating their lives to prayer and worship.

The issue of sexual abuse in the church has loomed large over Francis’ weeklong visit to Chile and Peru, where he discussed the plights of indigenous populations in the jungle and of those recovering from catastrophic flooding in Peru’s sandy desert coast.

Francis did confront the issue of abuse last week in Chile, where accusations against the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a pedophile priest, have damaged the church. But after first issuing an apology for the abuse, Francis called accusations of a cover-up by a bishop “all slander.” Those remarks prompted a rare rebuke from Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who is charged with working to improve the church’s handling of child abuse cases.

In Peru, Francis was mute on the subject.

Dozens of former members of the Peru-based Catholic group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae have said in recent years that they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. An internal investigation commissioned by the group confirmed those complaints, finding that many leaders, including its founder, had abused boys and young men.

Prosecutors have sought the arrest of Sodalitium’s founder, Luis Fernando Figari, and a handful of other leaders. But Mr. Figari lives in Rome, where the Vatican told him not to return to Peru and instructed Sodalitium to foot the bill for his living expenses abroad.

Francis recently placed a Colombian cardinal in charge of Sodalitium, but did not distance himself from the group during this trip. Instead, he shared a stage with a Sodalite archbishop, José Antonio Eguren, who introduced the pope at an event in the northern city of Trujillo. Neither mentioned the allegations.

Archbishop Eguren had also been linked to the allegations. An early member of Sodalitium, he was accused of physical abuse and was initially included in the complaint that led prosecutors to close in on Mr. Figari, said Hector Gadea, the lawyer who prepared the case.

But prosecutors immediately declined to investigate Archbishop Eguren, the lawyer said. “Mr. Eguren was the only Sodalite whom prosecutors declined to investigate from Day 1,” Mr. Gadea said.

Archbishop Eguren’s appearance with the pope not sit well with some observers.

“Francis has taken over Sodalitium, and then he asks ask this guy to speak?” said Pedro Salinas, a former Sodalite and a journalist who has investigated its abuses. “That to me is a scandalous contradiction.”

Francis turned his attention on Sunday to the importance of church unity in Peru, a country where Catholic fervor remains high but has been decreasing. A December 2017 poll found that 75 percent of Peruvians identify as Roman Catholic, down from 85 percent a decade earlier, according to Peru’s 2006 census.

More than a million people came to see Francis at his final Mass on Sunday evening, dwarfing the turnout in Chile, which was widely described as poor.

In his homily, he spoke of the suffering and injustice found in cities and the “temptation” of leaving or hiding. And he said he hoped “that degradation be overcome by fraternity, injustice by solidarity and violence silenced by the weapons of peace.”

Meeting with a group of nuns on Sunday morning, Francis told them to pray for a church that is “tempted to disunite.” He also offered them advice on maintaining unity.

“Gossip is like a bomb,” Francis told the nuns gathered at Las Nazarenas, a historic church near Lima’s main square, adding that the best remedy was “biting their tongue.”

“A nun who gossips,” he said, “is a terrorist nun.”


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