The sexual abuse began one evening in a park, says Alvaro Urbina. He was 14.
A misfit at his expensive English-style school in Lima, Peru, Urbina’s recently separated mother was desperate to provide him with some direction. She enrolled him in Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana.
Sodalicio was a kind of Catholic boot camp, run by non-clerical volunteers, dedicated to transforming teenagers from the Peruvian elite into prominent priests or devout and influential lay members of society.
“We clicked a little,” says Urbina of the mentor twice his age who had been tasked with befriending the troubled adolescent. “He was quite arrogant, but funny and very assertive, and a bit of a homophobe.”
One evening, after taking out Urbina and several other boys for ice cream, the pair wound up alone in the park.
Urbina recalls his mentor talking about how they needed to trust each other and telling him to prove his trust by pulling down his pants and underwear.
“He just looked at my penis for a while, in a kind of scientific way,” the now 34-year-old remembers. “After a bit, he told me to get dressed and he took me home.”
It was the start of a two year physical relationship, involving oral sex and intercourse, during which Urbina and his abuser met about twice a week.
Two decades later, Urbina has become the first of the dozens of alleged victims of sexual abuse that took place within Sodalicio to allow his name to be used publicly.
He decided to do this as the scandal around the group, which is officially affiliated to the Vatican and governed by its canonical law, has grown into a litmus test of Pope Francis’ ability to fulfill his promises of “zero tolerance” towards sexual abusers and those who cover up for them.
When he was 14, Álvaro Urbina was sexually abused at Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana catholic boot camp in Peru. (Photo courtesy of Álvaro Urbina/VICE News)
The Sodalicio case also has had a particular impact in Peru because the group maintains close ties with the country’s elite. It also directly implicated Luis Fernando Figari, the order’s founder and a prominent Peruvian.
Last month, Sodalicio acknowledged that Figari — who is currently “in retreat” in Rome, apparently reluctant to return to Peru — had committed abuses and moved to expel him from the group.
In an online video, Sodalicio’s current head, Alessandro Moroni, tacitly admitted that the abuse involving Figari was the tip of the iceberg by accepting that victims had “received no satisfactory reply” from Sodalicio for years.
“I apologize to the victims of any kind of abuse or mistreatment that they may have experienced from any member of our organization,” he said.
But this does not satisfy some.
“It’s been three years since Francis became pope, with his super-tough discourse on child sex abuse, but we have yet to see real action,” said Peruvian journalist Pao Ugaz, who co-authored a book on the abuses in Sodalicio that propelled the scandal onto the front pages in Peru. “There’s no transparency and no real response to the victims, or even empathy, never mind justice.”
‘He just looked at my penis for a while, in a kind of scientific way’
The Sodalicio case echoes the scandal around Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Mexican order Legionaries of Christ, and the decades-long systematic cover-up of his abuse of many children, including his own biological offspring. A confidante of Pope John Paul II, Maciel was treated like a living saint by the order that was close to some of the richest and most powerful people in Mexico.
Although he was eventually ordered to retire to a life of prayer, Maciel was never declared guilty by the Holy See, let alone forced to face a criminal investigation in ordinary courts. Pope Francis, meanwhile, granted an indulgence, which is basically a pardon, to the order earlier this year.
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Sodalicio was founded in 1971 and is formally affiliated with the Vatican. Within Sodalicio, word of the horror first began dripping out in 2010, including through a Spanish-language blog, las Lineas Torcidas, dedicated to pedophilia within the Church.
But it was the book — Half Monks, Half Soldiers — written by Ugaz and Pedro Salinas and published last year, that catapulted it out of the shadows.
The book featured anonymous testimony about sex abuse within the organization from numerous victims of Figari and other adult members. It is only thought to have stopped in the 1990s. Salinas and Ugaz say this is because other Sodalicio members discovered it — and then promptly covered it up.
It is only thanks to lobbying by the pair of journalists that Peruvian prosecutors finally began looking into the allegations last fall. The attorney general’s office told VICE News that an investigation is active but the details remain confidential as it is still in a preliminary phase. But with a 20-year-statute of limitations for these sexual crimes, time is fast running out to bring the abusers to justice.
‘This guy was supposed to be my spiritual guide. He was supposed to help me to grow up, to become a better person and deal with my personal problems. He wasn’t supposed to fuck me’
Meanwhile, last month’s apology by Sodalicio head Moroni comes after months more of stalling.
Sodalicio only acknowledged last October, while under considerable media pressure, that child sexual abuse allegations against its founder and other senior figures in the hierarchy were “plausible”. The other figures included Figari’s number two, Germán Doig, who died in 2001 and who Sodalicio had once proposed for sainthood.
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In an emailed response to questions from VICE News earlier this year, Sodalicio’s spokesman Fernando Vidal said that police were not contacted back in the 1990s, when the allegations first cropped up within the organization, because Doig was the person in charge of handling the matter.
Vidal added that the group was “firmly committed to clarifying the facts”, cooperating with investigators, providing compensation to the victims, and ensuring the crimes are never repeated.
Of Urbina’s alleged abuser, Vidal added: “We have had no ties to or contact with him since he left the institution many years ago.”
The response to the breaking scandal from Lima’s archbishop, Juan Luis Cipriani — the ultra-conservative Archbishop of Lima who is one of just two cardinals from the famously strict Opus Dei order — has been similarly ambiguous.
He ignored it entirely until commenting became unavoidable last October and he called for Figari’s suspension from Sodalicio pending investigation. But Cipriani also gave a homily warning that he would not accept criticism from “false moralists who want to mistreat the Church.”
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More recently, Cipriani’s office insisted that it was the Vatican, not the Lima archdiocese, which was responsible for getting to the bottom of the problems within Sodalicio.
The Vatican did open an investigation in April 2015, yet the cleric appointed to head it admits he didn’t get very far.
‘We have had no ties to or contact with him since he left the institution many years ago’
In an interview in his Lima office, Pablo Urcey, the Bishop of Chota, in the northern Peruvian Andes, said that he had met nearly 100 current and former members of Sodalicio, and had prepared a brief 30-page report for the Vatican.
But although many witnesses alleged psychological abuse, the only evidence of pedophilia Urcey said he had uncovered was through two separate written statements from people he never met. He also said that he had not read Half Monks, Half Soldiers because he had been “too busy” with his other duties, including as General Secretary of Peru’s Episcopal Conference.
“We have been focused on how he [Figari] exercised his authority as founder,” Urcey, said that this could have helped cover up “deviation” within the group. “The testimony alleges that he was authoritarian, despotic, bossy, and elitist.”
Urcey added that he believed Sodalicio wanted to get to the bottom of the scandal and saw his role as one of helping them do this.
Related: Sex Abuse Survivors Aren’t Happy With the Pope’s Comments on Bishops’ ‘Courage’
Urbina, who now runs his own bicycle business in Cologne, Germany, says his priority is to stop other children and adolescents suffering similar trauma.
Though he is keen to stress he is proud of the man that he has become, he also recalls how he was expelled from school while he was being abused, and adds that the experience affects his sex life and requires him to still see a psychiatrist.
“It took me a long time to realize how this has affected me, and shaped me psychologically,” he says. “This guy was supposed to be my spiritual guide. He was supposed to help me to grow up, to become a better person and deal with my personal problems. He wasn’t supposed to fuck me.”
VICE News was unable to contact his alleged abuser, who now lives in Illinois, despite repeated calls to his landline.
“I’ve also felt guilty, not because of what happened but because I didn’t speak out earlier,” Urbina adds. “That is why I am talking now. If I can stop just one more kid being abused, I will be happy.”