by PHILIPPA HITCHEN
ROME (CNS) – A New-Zealand-based theologian was one of several female survivors of sexual abuse by priests to call on Church leaders preparing for a February summit at the Vatican to listen to the voices of victims and to end a “culture of cover-up” that has dragged on for decades.
Dr Rocio Figueroa Alvear, who lectures at Good Shepherd College in Ponsonby, spoke of her experience during a Rome seminar titled “Overcoming Silence: Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis”.
She and other survivors urged victims of abuse to “go to the police”, adding that they believed internal investigations by the Church have consistently failed to address the problem since the first cases were reported by journalists in the 1980s.
Pope Francis has convened a summit on sex abuse in the Vatican from February 21-24. All 10 members of the Union of International Superiors General leadership – representing 500,000 women religious worldwide – will be attending the summit, which will bring together heads of bishops’ conferences from across the globe to discuss the Church’s response to the abuse crisis. Survivors will not be at the meeting, but will be part of the preparatory work and be present at a penitential liturgy, said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a member of the organising committee for the meeting.
Those who shared their stories at the November 27 event in Rome said the February summit in the Vatican would be ineffective unless “victim-centred listening” was at the heart of the bishops’ discussions.
Dr Figueroa, who once worked for the Pontifical Council for the Laity as head of the women’s section, recounted her experience of joining the lay movement, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, as a 15-year-old in Peru. The movement was founded in Peru in 1971 and was granted papal approval by St John Paul II in 1997.
Figueroa, who is also an external researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, described how the former vicar-general of the movement, German Doig, began touching her during spiritual direction classes. She said she “felt guilty and knew it was wrong”, but added she was very naive and “had no words to describe” the abuse.
In the late 1980s, Figueroa was among a group of women tasked with setting up a female branch of the movement, known as the Marian Community of Reconciliation.
When she complained about the way women were treated, Figueroa was sent to Rome, a move she described as “the beginning of my liberation”, There she met a priest to whom she was able to speak, for the first time, about her ordeal and who helped her “to lift the veil of silence”.
While working in the Vatican, she was asked to help prepare the process of beatification for Doig, who had died in 2001. During investigations, she discovered other members of the movement who had also been abused by him. Realising that he was “not a saint, but a serial perpetrator”, she confronted the founder of the movement, Luis Fernando Figari, who told her, “You are a liar, you seduced him”, adding, “We need a saint”.
Dr Figueroa told the Crux website that she had spoken to a cardinal she was close to, and told him everything she had discovered.
Instead of pledging to take action, Dr Figueroa said the cardinal gave her two options: either leave the community or stay and be a “silent soldier”. This, she said, is because “those cardinals were the ones promoting new movements”.
Eventually fed up, she helped victims write to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, to the Secretary of State, and to a host of other Vatican departments, yet, Dr Figueroa said, they did not receive any replies.
She was obliged to give up her job and later left the movement, but in 2015, she published a book with other former member of Sodalitium, journalist Pedro Salinas, detailing allegations of abuse by Doig, Figari and other leaders of the organisation.
Only then did the Vatican act, the Crux article stated.
In 2017, a Vatican-ordered investigation found that Figari “sexually assaulted at least one child, manipulated, sexually abused or harmed several other young people and physically or psychologically abused dozens of others”. He denied the charges, but was ordered by the Vatican to avoid all contact with the movement and to “live a life of prayer” in Rome. Figari launched an appeal, which was rejected. He launched a second appeal, which is currently awaiting judgement. Figari faces an order of preventive detention back in Peru due to a civil case.
US Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, is the Vatican’s delegate now overseeing the group’s reforms.
Dr Figueroa told Crux that while much discussion in the Church has so far focused on the abuse and cover-up by priests and bishops, lay movements are next on the list.
Asked whether lay movements are the “next frontier”, Figueroa said “absolutely”, saying that there is a lack of accountability and responsibility. She called for changes to canon law regarding lay movements.
Dr Figueroa said she’s spent the past four years researching the spiritual impact of clerical abuse.
Clerical abuse, she said, “is not the same” as other types of abuse, because perpetrators are believed to represent God, leaving “enormous” consequences for victims.
She also spoke of understanding Jesus himself as a victim of sexual abuse, noting how at the time it was common practice for prisoners to be humiliated and paraded around naked. Though Jesus is always depicted on the cross wearing a loincloth, history suggests he was likely exposed.
“He was surrounded by people mocking him naked,” she said, adding that “if they understand that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse, they would treat victims differently”, referring to the hierarchy.