Peruvian ex-nuns report abuses of power, conscience inside order | Crux

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ROME – “A Servant is tough. The one who obeys is never wrong. The voice of your authority is the voice of God. To question your authority is to question God. You can never trust anyone outside of the community. Your family is a temptation from the devil.”

Peruvian ex-nuns report abuses of power, conscience inside order | Crux
Peruvian ex-nuns report abuses of power, conscience inside order
Members of the Servants of the Plan of God pray at the top of a hill in Chosica, Peru in an undated photo. (Credit: Courtesy of ex-members of the SPD.)

ROME – “A Servant is tough. The one who obeys is never wrong. The voice of your authority is the voice of God. To question your authority is to question God. You can never trust anyone outside of the community. Your family is a temptation from the devil.”

These are just some of the phrases ingrained into the minds of young women who form part of the Siervas del Plan de Dios, or Servants of the Plan of God (SPD) – a group of lay consecrated women founded in Peru in 1998 by layman Luis Fernando Figari, and known colloquially as the Siervas, or “Servants.”

Figari is also the founder of two other Peruvian lay communities: The men’s Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), and the women’s Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), known in Spanish as the Fraternidad Mariana de la Reconciliación (FMR).

All three are lay consecrated societies of apostolic life, however, as opposed to the SCV and the MCR, the Servants, known on social media for music videos of them jamming out in their habits, wear the traditional habit and have a special charism to serve the poor and needy.

In 2015 Peruvian journalists Paola Ugaz and Pedro Salinas published the blockbuster book Half Monks, Half Soldiers containing the testimonies of countless former members of the SCV who accused Figari of various forms of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including against minors, as well as abuses of power, authority, and conscience.

Members complained of a toxic and militant internal culture in which authority was unquestioned and members were routinely criticized, publicly humiliated, and pushed to their physical and mental limits for the sake of being “tough enough” to meet the challenges of responding to God’s call.

Figari was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and is barred from having any contact with the communities he founded, and the SCV is currently undergoing an in-depth reform involving the re-drafting of their governing constitutions under the guidance of three different Vatican-appointed delegates.

However, the SCV’s women’s branches have largely stayed out of the spotlight, despite numerous complaints of similar abuses inside of these communities.

Between 2016 and July of this year, nearly 30 former members of the Servants, some of whom left as recently as 2020, have made complaints to ecclesial authorities in Peru, in Chile, and in the Vatican.

Crux has seen several of these complaints.

Among those who have raised complaints are Angela Cardona, who spent 16 years inside of the community; Paola Mattos, who was in community for 17 years; Melanie Taylor, who was in community for six years; Verónica Avilés, who was in for seven years, and Delia Avilés, who was in for eight years.

A history of abuse

Founded with a charism for serving the poor and those most in need, the Servant’s mantra has always been, “if you are tired, don’t show it; always show a sweet and tender smile like Holy Mary.”

Yet according to former members, this sweet smile was not always sincere, but was often used as a mask to hide the physical and emotional consequences of the abuses of power and authority which for years were commonplace inside the community.

Many of the former members who denounced abuse in the SPD complained of excessive exercise that pushed them beyond their physical limits, and which in some cases caused permanent injury, and with an excessive emphasis on diet and physical appearance.

According to former members, only the prettiest girls and those from the wealthiest families were presented when Figari visited their communities, and weeks were spent practicing his favorite dishes before he came.

Curvier women were told things like, “God doesn’t like us to be fat,” or, “the one who is fat is not apostolic,” and were put on strict diets without the consultation of a nutritionist. Some claim they either were made to do additional exercises or witnessed other girls being required to, which for some caused a series of health problems, including anemia.

One former member, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said members of the community in Chosica, Peru were required annually to climb a rocky hill so they could pray at the top.

The hill in Chosica, Peru that members of the Servants of the Plan of God were required to climb. (Credit: Courtesy of ex-members of the SPD.)

There was no trail to the top, so the sisters were required to climb over the rocks in simple black formal school shoes, instead of sneakers or hiking boots, and without any other form of protection.

Once they reached the top, they would have time for prayer, reflection, and meditation.

On one occasion, this former member said she slipped and fell on a cactus, but was still required to finish the climb. By the time they returned to the community house, her back was sore and bleeding.

This sister said that in all her years living in the Chosica community house, not once did the superior make the climb with them, but would instead often stay in bed in her pajamas until late in the morning.

Former members said they were also scolded or received humiliating corrections in front of the entire community, when a superior would shout or throw things. Many claimed to be verbally abused, being told things like, “use the only neuron you have” when they made a mistake.

Others also claimed there was a manipulation of their discernment process, and were told that voicing doubt about their vocation was tantamount to giving in to temptations of the devil.

Members of the Servants of the Plan of God with founder Luis Fernando Figari in an undated photo. (Credit: courtesy of Delia Avilés.)

Certain members also spoke of problems they had during their formative years, which instead focusing on study and discernment were spent as the personal servant of their superior, doing everything from cleaning their rooms, to ironing their veils, to washing their underwear.

Many former sisters in their complaints also pointed to the significant number of members they knew to be receiving some form of psychological treatment, which for most began only after they entered the community, including several who were on medications. Many left with anxiety disorders and some developed PTSD.

They also complained over the alleged misuse of resources, saying that money intended to support projects for the poor was instead invested into the community, while homes for the elderly went months without basic repairs, and were provided with only the most basic and cheapest of materials.

Loyalty to Figari

Despite open rumors about Figari’s misdeeds and even the sanctions placed against him by the Vatican in 2017, former members of the SPD said he was still idolized by the community.

Mattos, who claims to have suffered various psychological abuses, abuses of authority, and actions against her physical health while inside the community, said when she was preparing to have a surgery, which happened around the same time allegations were coming out against Figari, she was told that he was being “unfairly persecuted,” and to offer her sufferings up for him.

Similarly, once allegations were public and it was clear that the Vatican would likely take action against Figari, Delia Avilés said she asked her superiors if she should throw away the stash of Figari’s books in the community house.

In response, she was told, “keep them, who knows if Luis Fernando during this time in Rome is sanctifying himself and will become holy,” as Figari had been sent to live in Rome when rumors about his conduct began to circulate in Peru.

Other former members claim to have heard sisters defending Figari, and they charge superiors within the Servants imitated his authoritarian style of leadership, even after he was sanctioned.

An apostolic visitation and complaints are made

In 2016, the first complaint against the Servants was made by a former candidate to enter the SPD with the OPADE office (Pastoral Office for Complaints) in Chile for various abuses.

A year later, a report appeared in Chilean newspaper, El Mostrador, that was written by a former member of the SPD who recounted horrifying stories of abuse inside the community, exposing these allegations to the public.

In May 2018, five former members of the Servants made complaints to Bishop José Rodríguez Carballo, Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in Rome, recounting their stories of abuse. They have yet to receive a response.

At the time, these five women also informed the SPD that they had made the complaint but did not disclose its contents. However, after a year passed with no response, they sent the SPD the report in its entirety in 2019. The SPD responded, but there has been no change or follow up.

Sister Carmen Cárdenas meeting Pope Francis in an undated photo. (Credit: Courtesy of Delia Avilés.)

Several months after the complaint was made by the five former members in 2018, several women who belonged to the community at the time, but who no longer do, wrote to the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima at the time, Juan Luis Cipriani, to raise concern about conduct inside of the SPD.

In December 2018, Cipriani opened a canonical visitation of the SPD, asking them not to have any external communication while the visitation took place. Members were told that if they spoke about the visitation to anyone outside of the community, including their families, it was a violation of their promise of obedience.

The first delegates carrying out the visitation were Peruvian priest Jose Taminez and Peruvian Sister María Elena Camones. However, Cipriani retired in the middle of the visitation, and now-auxiliary bishop of Lima José Salaverry was tasked with carrying out the visitation alongside Camones.

At the time, the community was told that each of the members would be interviewed as part of the visitation, however, former members claim this was not the case, and that many of them were prevented from speaking to the delegates, including several who had confided abuse to their superiors.

The visitation ended abruptly without concluding its work shortly after now-Archbishop of Lima Carlos Castillo came to office in March 2019, and sisters were told the reason for this was the change in ecclesial authority in Lima, however, some former members said they were told by church officials in Lima later that another reason was a lack of transparency from SPD members and authorities during the interviews.

A few months later, in August 2019, a group of 20 former members of the SPD sent a dossier to Castillo outlining testimonies and complaints of various abuses. This dossier was later also presented to Salaverry, who is now Lima’s delegate for consecrated life.

Former Servants of the Plan of God member Andrea Garcia meeting John Paul II in an undated photo. (Credit: Courtesy of Delia Avilés.)

Salaverry did not respond to a Crux request for comment about the results of the visitation and the current status of the SPD.

In June 2021, a separate group of seven former members made a formal complaint to Chile’s OPADE office, and in July, their complaints were sent to the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life through the department’s undersecretary, Father Pier Luigi Nava.

Many of the complaints involve Andrea García, who has left the community, but was in charge of formation for the SPD from 1998-2017, who served as superior general of the community from 1998-2005 and was part of the superior council from 1998-2018.

Former members have also accused Sisters Carmen Cárdenas, Claudia Duque, and Elizabeth Sánchez of various abuses inside the community.

Members of the Servants of the Plan of God with the Archbishop of Lima, Carlos Castillo, in an undated photo. (Credit: Courtesy of Delia Avilés.)

Cardenas herself served as superior general of the SPD from 2005 until January 2020. Both she and García were appointed by Figari. The current SPD superior general, Natalia Sánchez, was the first to be elected by the community members themselves in 2020.

In comments to Crux, Sister Natalia Sánchez, current superior general of the SPD, said that for some years the community has been undergoing “a process of reflection and renewal.”

Part of this process, she said, was the SPD’s first General Assembly, which took place in late 2019, and at the end of which they elected new leadership.

During the assembly, “we were able to elect our new authorities and rethink our path in community at the service of the Church; We recognize that this is a long road in which there is still more to deepen in and learn,” she said.

Sánchez said the community is currently promoting several activities aimed at reform, including training courses on various topics; meetings and conversations with specialists; drafting protocols for the prevention and identification of abuse according to Church norms; a revised formation plan, including the formation of those who serve as superiors in community houses, and the sisters in their care.

All of these steps, Sánchez said, “are necessary for the healthy practice of community discernment that promotes the participation of the sisters and fraternal life.”

She pledged the SPD’s “total willingness” to cooperate with competent authorities “so that any fact that is the subject of a complaint is clarified and the pertinent measures are taken, and thus the truth and justice that the people who have been affected and our Church need so much are guaranteed.”

Sánchez did not disclose whether an investigation had been opened into Cárdenas, Duque, or Sánchez.

To date, Delia is the only one who has heard from the Vatican after having sent an individual complaint to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, via email in December 2020.

Just this month, almost a year after contacting Ladaria, Delia received an email from an official at the so-called Congregation for Religious asking for an address to which they could send a formal letter from the department.

In that letter, signed by Sister Carmen Ros Nortes, undersecretary of the Congregation for Religious, Delia was told that her complaint from December 2020 was received, and that “It has been the subject of a careful analysis and has been taken to the competent authority (within the SPD) to request a response in this regard.”

“For the good of all and for the good of the Church, the same authorities have been asked to act, overcome, and correct the improper and incorrect aspects that were found in the government, in the formation, and in the verification of possible acts of abuse of power, of psychological violence, or manipulation of the conscience,” Ros Nortes said in the letter.

The Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life declined a Crux request for comment on the status of the SPD and whether an investigation has been opened.

On Nov. 16, the SPD announced on their Facebook page that earlier this month they had held a virtual encounter with all members throughout the world to discuss abuse prevention protocols as part of a process of “institutional revision, reflection, and renewal.”

Yet for former members, many of whom left within the past 1-5 years, gestures such as this are too little too late, and there is doubt as to whether any meaningful reform can take place when the leadership of the community is still comprised of members of the “old guard” formed in the time of Figari.

Given that many of the former members have left very recently, this means the abuses they experienced inside the community were still happening even after Benedict XVI and Pope Francis’s attempted reforms of consecrated life, and after scandals involving Figari and several other founders of ecclesial movements had gone public.

Currently there is enormous pressure inside of Peru to disband the SCV, and the entire “Sodalite Family.”

What will happen to these communities is yet to be seen, but one thing for certain is that regardless of their fate, they stand as a glaring example of the work that still needs to be done in the arduous and ongoing effort to reform consecrated life in the Catholic Church.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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