Only the faint sound of shuffling feet could be heard behind the heavy wooden door of the apartment in Rome where Luis Fernando Figari has lived since 2010. And then, silence.
Close by, another tenant in the upscale apartment building – which sits a short walk from Campo de’ Fiori in the centre of the city – vaguely recognised a picture of Figari taken decades ago, which showed him standing beside Pope John Paul II. She had seen him around, but only rarely.
What residents don’t know is that the now frail, bearded man who lives in their building founded a Catholic sect in Peru which answers only to the Vatican and which he once ran like a new age guru.
Figari – who is a layman, not a priest – is now considered persona non grata within the group, the Sodalitium of Christian Life, following allegations by former followers that he physically, emotionally and sexually abused them.
But he is also considered legally untouchable, both in Peru and the Vatican – even though the new leader of the sect has said Figari is guilty of many of the allegations that have been lodged against him.
At the heart of the story lies a reckoning that has – many believe – been decades in the making.
Five former members of the sect are trying to hold its founder and other leaders to account. They filed a lawsuit last month in Peru, in which they accused Figari and seven others of kidnapping, assault and criminal conspiracy; crimes which could be punished by jail terms of up to 30 years under Peru’s penal code.
The five complainants did not explicitly accuse the Sodalitium members of sexual abuse – in Peru, the statute of limitations on such a charge has expired – but the lawsuit cites “constant accusations of sexual abuse against the founder”.
Figari has not been charged with any crimes in Peru, but he is the subject of an investigation by the country’s attorney general’s office.
Sodalitium was founded in Lima in 1971. Like other orthodox groups that were popping up across Latin American at the time, the sect was a direct response by conservative Catholics to the growth of the liberation theology movement, a distinctly Latin American movement in which radical priests locked arms with leftwing militants who believed that the church could be used to advance social change.
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But Solidatium went beyond movements like Opus Dei, adopting a militarist stance. Figaro openly sympathised with Falangism – the Spanish fascist ideology – and recruited children and young men from Peru’s mostly European-descended middle and upper classes.
“Figari admired the oratory of Hitler and Mussolini. He was inspired by Nazi marches and he had a fascination with the Hitler Youth,” said Pedro Salinas, a former member and co-author of the book Half Monks Half Soldiers.
“It was an absolutely totalitarian religious organisation in which the power rested in the hands of one person: Luis Fernando Figari,” he told the Guardian.
Salinas’s book, which was co-authored by Paola Ugaz, is based on accounts by 30 former members who alleged they had been subject to physical, psychological – and in some cases sexual – abuse in the sect. Since the book’s publication last year, dozens more complainants have come forward, shaking Peru’s conservative elite.
Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis and expert on the church in South America, said other rightwing movements born around the same time as Sodalitium have experienced similar abuse issues. Each prized high discipline, centred on a cult of leadership, and stressed the idea of authority.
“Those structures allowed abuses to take place and allowed them to be covered up for a long time,” Ivereigh said.
Among the alleged victims is Álvaro Urbina, 35, who claimed he was systematically sexually abused for two years after his mother enrolled him into Sodalitium at the age of 14. Urbina has alleged he was abused by a former sect official – not Figari – who he once considered his “spiritual guide”.
Twenty years on, Urbina was the first of dozens of alleged victims to allow his identity to be made public. His decision is aimed at shaming the senior figures in Sodalitium’s hierarchy into admitting they covered up abuse.
It was not until 2010 – years after abuse allegations first emerged – that the sect decided to send Figari from Peru to Rome.
Last year, the group admitted that the sexual abuse allegations against its founder and other senior members were “plausible”, just as it became public that the Vatican had ordered an investigation into the group.
Then, in April, it went a step further. In an online video, Sodalitium’s current leader, Alessandro Moroni, apologised to victims, acknowledging that they had “received no satisfactory reply” from the group for years.
“After the testimonies received, we consider Luis Fernando Figari guilty of the allegations of abuse against him and declare him persona non grata in our organisation as we deplore and wholly condemn his behaviour,” he said.
The group is also bringing in experts to train members in Peru and offer psychological assistance.
For many former members, those words and actions are contradicted by a perception that Figari remains protected by the group, which still pays for his room and board.
In an emailed response to the Guardian, Sodalitium’s spokesman, Fernando Vidal, said: “Faced with the allegations of sexual abuse, our institution responds with the greatest possible rigour.”
A person close to the sect said it had no other options because of fears of legal reprisals by Figari, who has privately denied wrongdoing and never been convicted of any crimes.
Urbina, whose abuser is alleged to have sexually abused others, rejects the apologies. “They have covered up all of this, all the time they said nothing about it, ignored it, and when they couldn’t cover it up any more they come and tell me they’re sorry!” he said bitterly. “Oh you’re sorry! That really cures everything, that really does the trick!”
In April, the Vatican ordered that Figari be moved out of his flat in Rome to a more isolated setting.
While the Vatican has a poor reputation when it comes to pursuing allegations of clerical abuse, experts say that in Figari’s case, the church’s hands are tied. Recent changes in Vatican law did away with the statute of limitations on sex crimes, but only for priests – not laymen like Figari.
Unlike sexual abuse, kidnapping has no statute of limitations, said Héctor Gadea, the lawyer representing the five former members.
“What we want is justice,” Óscar Osterling, one of the five plaintiffs, said. “We know there are more sodalites who are angry because their lives were destroyed. We hope they come forward.”
None of the five claim they were victims of sexual abuse but all claim they were inculcated with the group’s philosophy from a young age, were deprived of their freedom, suffered other abuses and left with a lifetime of psychological problems.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the group now is whether it can exist beyond the Figari scandal.
Vatican experts say Pope Francis appears willing to give Sodalitium a chance to reform itself, even if the Vatican could technically dissolve the group. The church has appointed the archbishop of Indianapolis, Joseph William Tobin, to intervene and oversee it. Tobin is considered to be a progressive by Vatican standards, and the decision is seen as a vote of confidence that Sodalitium can clean itself up.
Sodalitium’s spokesman said it had informed the authorities in the US state of Illinois, where Urbina’s alleged abuser now lives, about his “antecedents”.
When asked why the cases of sex abuse which arose were not handed over to the criminal courts, the spokesman blamed Figari and his second-in-command, Germán Doig – who has since died – of handling the cases in “an unacceptable way”.
Urbina, who runs a mechanics workshop in Cologne, Germany, said he needs psychiatric treatment as a result of the abuse he suffered but his priority is to prevent it from happening to others.
“If I save one kid from [him] I’m happy. If I save only one kid from his claws,” he said referring to his abuser.
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