LIMA (Reuters) - The Catholic Church in Peru on Wednesday rebuked a local archbishop who has sued two local investigative journalists for libel after they broke a sex abuse story involving an elite Catholic society that he belongs to.
Jose Eguren, archbishop of the coastal city of Piura, has accused the journalists, Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz, of slandering him by accusing him of covering up the abuse. This week, a judge ruled in his favour and ordered Salinas to a year’s probation and $24,000 fine. A ruling is pending for Ugaz.
Human rights activists and journalists slammed the sentence as a blow to freedom of expression and efforts to end impunity for child sex abusers.
In a statement about the ruling, the Peruvian Episcopal Conference, which represents the Catholic Church in the country of 32 million people and reports to the Vatican, called for solidarity with the victims of abuse in the Church and for those who expose abuse such as journalists.
“The Holy Pope himself has praised and thanked journalists for work that has, through their investigations, contributed to the reporting of abuse, punishment for abusers and assistance for victims,” the presidency of the conference said.
“The Pope stresses that the Church needs help in this difficult task of fighting this evil,” added the statement, which did not mention Eguren directly.
Eguren said it was premature for the Episcopal Conference to comment on the case because the full ruling of Judge Judith Cueva had not been made public. “Before making pronouncements, it’s prudent in these circumstances to wait for the entire sentence to be read,” Eguren said in a statement.
Salinas and Ugaz say they accused Eguren of covering up the abuse because of accounts by victims. They say he is trying to silence them for reporting on accounts of sexual, physical and psychological abuse by leaders in Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a Catholic society with pontifical approval that Eguren belongs to.
The book Salinas and Ugaz co-authored on Sodalitium in 2015, “Mitad Monjes, Mitad Soldados,” prompted investigations into former members of the society by the Peruvian prosecutors’ office and the Vatican.
An internal report by Sodalitium in 2017 concluded the group’s founder and other high-ranking former members had abused 19 minors and 10 adults. Last year, Pope Francis ordered the Vatican to take over the organization.
Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Peter Cooney