Pope Francis on Wednesday ordered the Vatican takeover of an elite Catholic society in Peru whose founder is accused of sexually and physically abusing children and former members of the group.
The move, according to a statement that was released by the Vatican, is the latest step in a saga that has damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church in Peru.
It comes a week before Francis is due to make his first visit as pope to the country and Chile as victims of sexual abuse said that he has not done enough to stop root it out.
The credibility of a commission he formed in 2014 has been severely damaged by the defections of senior members who accused the Vatican of dragging its feet.
The Vatican said the pope had appointed an administrator to run Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), whose founder Luis Figari, a layman, is due to go on trial in Peru for the sexual abuse of minors later in the year.
However, Figari has denied wrongdoing.
An internal report by the group in 2017 concluded that Figari, who founded it in 1971 and headed it till 2010, and three other high-ranking former members had abused 19 minors and 10 adults.
Most of the cases took place between the 1970s and 2000.
The report, published on the group’s website, describes Figari as a charismatic, authoritarian and cult-like leader who publicly humiliated members as part of his strategy to control them.
Peruvian authorities opened an investigation into Figari in 2015 following the publication of a book into the alleged abuse written by Peruvian investigative journalists Pao Ugaz and Pedro Salinas.
Salinas once belonged to the ultra-conservative Sodalitium, whose members include businessmen, writers and politicians from Peru’s upper classes and was founded as a part of a backlash to the “Liberation Theology”, which took sides with the poor.
The Vatican statement said the pope had been following the group’s situation “with worry” for years and had taken the action “after a detailed analysis of all the documentation”.
It said the pope was concerned about “the gravity of information regarding the internal system, (religious) formation (of members) and economic and financial management”.
The Vatican move came a month after a lawyer for victims said a public prosecutor was seeking pre-trial detention for Figari and three other former leaders of the group.
The Vatican, which officially recognised the group in 1997, however, in 2017 prohibited Figari from having any contact with members.
The takeover of the SCV was similar to the action the Vatican took against another conservative group, the Legionaries of Christ.
An administrator was appointed to run the Legionaries after its founder, the late Mexican priest Marcial Degollado, was discovered to have been sexually abusive with a secret family.
The Vatican said the SCV would be run by a Colombian Bishop Noel Buitrago.