Peru: Scandal Rocks Peruvian Catholic Church, Ambassador to Spain Implicated

Article excerpt

Peruvian prosecutors sought to bring charges against four bishops and Peru's ambassador to Spain for allegedly distributing false letters to the Vatican in a plot to defame the nation's controversial cardinal, Juan Luis Cipriani. Cipriani is the first member of the ultraconservative group Opus Dei to be elevated to the rank of cardinal in Latin America. Prosecutorial allegations about a plot to link Cipriani to former intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos have led to a crisis within the hierarchy of Peru's Catholic Church, causing its leaders to call on government for "true justice."

Progressives accused of delivering forged documents

One of the accused is the ex-president of the Conferencia Episcopal Peruana (CEP), Luis Bambaren, a Jesuit prelate who is popular particularly in marginalized social sectors and is seen as a leader in the progressive wing of the Peruvian clergy. He, along with Jorge Carrion Pavlich, a bishop in the city of Puno, face accusations from prosecutors that they conspired to deliver three letters, later proven to be fake, to the Vatican, which "proved" Cipriani's involvement with the corruption endemic to the regime of former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).

In 2001, tensions ran high between the government of President Alejandro Toledo and the Vatican when Fernando Olivera, then justice minister and currently Peru's ambassador to Spain, went to Rome with the letters. The government was forced to apologize to Cipriani after the Vatican stated that the incriminating letters--which also implicated the papal nuncio in Lima, Archbishop Rino Passigato--were false.

Of the three letters, two were supposedly signed by Passigato and were directed to Montesinos to thank him for some donations and "your tireless interest in helping us." Montesinos is currently imprisoned and is facing multiple trials (see NotiSur, 2004-01-30). He served as Fujimori's closest advisor during the authoritarian regime. The third letter, supposedly bearing Cipriani's signature, was sent to ex-President Valentin Paniagua (2000-2001), asking him to burn compromising videos. The letters purported to show that Cipriani sought the "elimination and incineration" of videotapes linking him to Montesinos after the church took money from the spy chief and requested an additional US$120,000 "donation."

Internal church tensions burst into public view

Cipriani, however, has detractors outside of the alleged conspirators against him. At his first mass as cardinal in 2001, Cipriani was confronted by protesters chanting, "Christ is justice, not complicity," and "Cipriani and Montesinos, the same killers." After he served as a negotiator during a hostage crisis that ended in bloodshed in 1997, accusations that he had violated his neutrality and assisted intelligence services came into the open (see NotiSur, 1997-02-21, 1997-04-25 and 1997-05-23).

The justice department's revelation of a plot reflects the great tensions within the Catholic Church and the discontent of some bishops at the naming of Cipriani as archbishop of Lima in 1999 and as the first Opus Dei cardinal in Peru in February 2001.

Bishop Bambaren said that Olivera showed him the three letters in Rome in October 2001. Olivera's attitude "surprised me. Before showing me the letters, he said to me, 'I have come with the letters,' and in that moment I read them for the first time," Bambaren said to the Lima daily Peru 21 on Sept. 17.

"It surprised me to read them because the content was very grave, because of the accusations they made regarding negotiations for thousands of dollars in the naming or promotion of cardinals," he said. The bishop says that he told Olivera that "the letters were not authentic," but that the ambassador did not listen and took the letters to the Vatican. …