LIMA, Peru — When reporters at the Boston Globe exposed child sex abuse within the Catholic Church, their investigative work was so celebrated that Hollywood made a film, Spotlight, about it.
Now, after carrying out a similar crusading probe into pedophilia in a Catholic lay organization in South America, Peruvian journalist Pao Ugaz is facing jail time and a hefty damages bill.
For years, Ugaz, 45, has been researching Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana, a Catholic boot camp for children from elite families. She began by contributing to the 2015 Spanish-language book Half Monks, Half Soldiers, by Pedro Salinas, which revealed a pattern of abuse at Sodalicio, which Salinas had attended as a teen. She is now investigating its financing and is due to publish a book on that subject later this year.
But the pair’s award-winning work has ruffled feathers and made Ugaz in particular the target of a string of lawsuits from Sodalicio members and conservative activists, some for defamation and some seeking to have her charged with corruption.
The attacks on her integrity have come from Peru’s tabloid press as well as an obscure conservative Catholic website, La Abeja. It claims to want to “elevate the national debate” yet has published dozens of articles attacking Ugaz in highly personal terms, with a series of outlandish and evidence-free claims, while also naming her children’s school and speculating about how she could afford it.
The stories include one titled “Paola Ugaz, the Face of Defamation and Lies”, accusing her of being a compulsive liar, another alleging she was covering up for organized crime, and a third titled “The Arab Paola Ugaz” that alleges she associated with the Palestinian independence movement and the family of Nobel laureate novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to traffic in uranium and plutonium.
But now, after giving TV and radio interviews in which Ugaz responded by describing La Abeja and its editor, Luciano Revoredo, as “defamatory” – a statement of the obvious, you might think – she is in the dock herself thanks to a private prosecution for defamation bought by Revoredo.
The case highlights the resistance in conservative bastions of Latin America’s Catholic establishment to acknowledging its numerous child abuse scandals as well as what free speech campaigners describe as Peru’s antiquated legal code, which establishes defamation as a criminal rather than civil matter, handicapping media scrutiny of powerful interests by threatening journalists with prison.
Under Peru’s criminal defamation statute, Revoredo is asking for Ugaz to be sentenced to three years in jail and to pay him 200,000 Sols ($55,000) in damages.
In Peru, sentences of less than four years are usually suspended. But if Ugaz loses any of the other lawsuits against her, the suspension could be revoked and she could be locked up. Several other Peruvian journalists have been convicted in recent years as a result of their work in the public interest.
Ugaz believes that the fact that the judge, Romulo Chira, even allowed the case to go to trial, despite the apparent facts, heralds a guilty verdict. Chira, who did not respond to VICE World News’ request for comment, has also banned observers from the American Bar Association from attending the proceedings.
The trial, which is likely to be drawn out, started on January 7th before Chira suspended it, to give Revoredo’s lawyer extra time to produce evidence of his claims. It is due to resume next week.
Ugaz has also received death threats, including an anonymous Instagram message warning that she would be the victim of a “Peruvian Charlie Hebdo”, a reference to the French satirical magazine shot up by Islamic fundamentalists, and would be “fumigated with lead.” Salinas, she says, has caught an off-duty cop snooping around his home.
Natalie Southwick, the South and Central America coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, describes Ugaz’s trial as “legal madness”, noting how Peru needs to modernize its statute book and scrap criminal defamation, in line with recent reforms in some other Latin American countries.
“This case is clearly one of the most extreme examples of how the criminal defamation structure is used against journalists,” added Southwick. “Peru is one of the countries where we most see criminal defamation weaponized against journalists in this way.”
In fact, Salinas was convicted in 2019 in a related lawsuit brought by José Antonio Eguren, the ultra-conservative Archbishop of Piura and Tumbes, in northern Peru, after the journalist accused him of covering up child abuse cases. But Eguren then withdrew his private prosecution after pressure from progressive Peruvian clerics and, it is thought, Pope Francis.
That remains the only lawsuit against Salinas while Ugaz has faced roughly a dozen. “It tells you everything,” she says. “There’s a misogyny to this,” noting that to this day, the only conviction arising from the pair’s exposé of Sodalicio is of Salinas rather than any abuser. “We are alone. Why aren’t prosecutors doing anything about the abuse?”
The case also illustrates what critics describe as the reactionary nature of Peru’s political, religious and judicial establishment, and its resistance to modern notions of civil rights and equality.
Revoredo, who says he believes child abusers should face the full weight of the law but that the Church should not be tarnished by their actions, was a congressional candidate last year for the National Solidarity party, which opposes abortion in all circumstances, LGBTQ rights and even sex education in schools.
National Solidarity’s former leader, ex-Lima mayor Luis Castañeda, is under house arrest on corruption charges. Its candidate in Peru’s upcoming presidential elections, Rafael López Aliaga — a businessman who owns one of the train companies that ferries tourists to Machu Picchu — sparked outrage this month by saying that underage rape victims should see out their pregnancies in “five-star hotels.”
Asked by VICE World News about why he was seeking a prison term for a journalist, Revoredo responded: “The lawyer establishes that. When you sue someone, you have to ask for a sanction, otherwise what’s the point?”
He also insisted that he had proof for all the allegations against Ugaz. But, after initially agreeing during a phone interview to produce that evidence, he failed to do so in response to VICE World News’ follow-up messages.
For her part, Ugaz says she is not giving up: “These lawsuits have taken over my life. Last year, I didn’t really have time for anything else. But fear can’t be your editor. The response has to be more and better journalism. My book is coming out.”