VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Wednesday took over a Peru-based Catholic movement whose founder was accused of sexually, physically and psychologically abusing his members, just days before Pope Francis starts a trip to Chile and Peru where the church’s sexual abuse scandal is expected to play out.
A Vatican statement said the congregation for religious orders had issued a decree naming a commissioner to take over the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative movement that has some 20,000 members and chapters throughout South America and the U.S.
The move came just weeks after Peruvian prosecutors announced they were seeking the arrest of Sodalitium’s founder, Luis Figari, who an independent investigation concluded was a paranoid narcissist obsessed with sex and watching his underlings endure pain and humiliation.
Francis is expected to contend with the abuse scandal in his home continent for the first time during the Jan. 15-21 trip, with protests planned and recent revelations in Chile about the growing scandal there. On Wednesday, the online database BishopAccountability.org released research showing 78 priests or members of religious orders had been credibly accused or convicted in Chile.
In Peru, a journalist and former member of the society began publicly accusing Figari of abuse in 2010. The case languished in Lima and the Vatican for years until a book was published in 2015 detailing the twisted ways Figari would humiliate his members. While Figari was never charged, many of the allegations against him were eventually confirmed by a Vatican inquiry. Figari was ordered to cut contact with members of the society last year, and has been living in Rome ever since.
He has never provided concrete responses to the accusations, though the society has said they were likely true. His Peru-based lawyer, Armando Lengua, has said he hasn’t been in contact with Figari, saying he is unreachable in the Sodalitium prayer and retreat house in Rome.
Some of Sodalitium’s victims had denounced the Vatican’s handling of the case, saying in 2017 that the years-long delay in taking any action, and subsequently decision to allow Figari to live in comfortable retirement in Rome, was anything but satisfactory.
In the statement, the Vatican said Francis had followed the Sodalitium saga for years, had asked that the congregation pay particular attention to it and was “particularly concerned about the seriousness of information about the internal regime, the training and financial management.”
The Vatican said the congregation had decided on the “commissioning” of the society, and appointing Colombian Bishop Noel Antonio Londono as the commissioner, after the recent moves by Peruvian prosecutors to arrest Figari and a “profound analysis of all the documentation.”
The decision marked the latest — and most extreme — action to date by the Vatican, since it first ordered an investigation into the society 2015. After that, the Vatican named a delegate, American Cardinal Joseph Tobin, to accompany Sodalitium as it reformed and then sanctioned Figari last year.
The decree to place the society under a Vatican-appointed commissioner signaled that the Holy See believed the Sodalitium was incapable of reforming itself despite a series of measures its new leadership has taken to try to make amends with victims, acknowledge past abuses and reform its internal methods and governance.
The society said it only learned of the takeover on Wednesday. In a statement, it thanked Francis, pledged to cooperate fully with the new commissioner and said it would accept whatever is decided in the future.
“We reaffirm once again our absolute obedience to the Holy Father and the Holy Mother Church,” a statement on the group’s website read.
Figari founded the society, known by its acronym SCV, in 1971 as a lay community to recruit “soldiers for God.” It was one of several Catholic societies born as a conservative reaction to the left-leaning liberation theology movement that swept through Latin America starting in the 1960s.
Figari was a charismatic intellectual, but he was also “narcissistic, paranoid, demeaning, vulgar, vindictive, manipulative, racist, sexist, elitist and obsessed with sexual issues and the sexual orientation of SCV members,” according to a 2017 investigative report commissioned by the society’s new leadership.
The report, by two Americans and an Irish expert in abuse, found that Figari sodomized his recruits and forced them to fondle him and one another. He liked to watch them “experience pain, discomfort and fear,” and humiliated them in front of others to enhance his control over them, the report found.
The SCV scandal parallels that of the Mexico-based Legion of Christ religious order, whose charismatic founder was a favorite of St. John Paul II. He was found to be a serial pedophile who sexually abused his seminarians, fathered three children and built a secretive, cult-like organization to hide his double life.
The Vatican sanctioned him in 2006 after documentation about his abuse languished for decades in the same congregation that received the SCV complaints years ago and finally took over the society Wednesday.
The SCV case also echoes the scandal in the El Bosque community in Chile, where local church authorities for years refused to believe victims of a charismatic priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, who was ultimately sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 to live a lifetime of penance and prayer for his crimes.
Some of Karadima’s victims, as well as concerned Chilean laity, are expected to stage protests during Francis’ trip to Chile, which begins Monday. The Karadima scandal has taken on new life after Francis named as bishop of the southern diocese of Osorno a Karadima protege accused by victims of knowing of his abuse and doing nothing.
This version corrects that the BishopAccountability research on Chilean accusations was presented Wednesday, not Tuesday.