“I want to assure everyone,” Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano wrote in 2008, “that I have never hidden or protected anyone convicted of any crime.” The bishop was attempting to quell the outcry of Catholics in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, over his decision to invite an accused priest and his followers—the Society of St. John—to establish themselves in his diocese. “My track record in these cases is very clear,” Livieres continued. “Just as I have not hesitated to convict the guilty, neither will I punish an innocent victim of slander.” The victim, according to Livieres, was Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, an Argentine native who has been followed by allegations of sexual misconduct across three countries over three decades.
That troubling history, readily available to anyone with an internet connection, made it difficult for many Ciudad del Este Catholics to take their bishop at his word. So in 2009 they mounted a campaign against him, enlisting the support of other Paraguayan bishops and priests, who took the case to Pope Benedict XVI. But, unbeknownst to them, Livieres claimed to have the support of Benedict—in part because of their shared fondness for the Latin Mass. Livieres’s critics would not receive a satisfying response to their complaints until Benedict retired—and Pope Francis was elected.
Livieres was installed as bishop of Ciudad del Este in 2004. Before he even arrived, Livieres—a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei—caused consternation among the bishops, priests, and laypeople of Paraguay. The bishops were surprised by John Paul II’s decision to appoint Livieres because his name was not on the terna—the list of three names recommended by the local bishops conference. Soon after Livieres took over in Ciudad del Este, more than one hundred fifty clerics wrote to Pope Benedict XVI to protest the bishop’s “renewal of church discipline” and “new pastoral guidelines,” as Livieres would later put it. But Benedict did not respond, according to an account Livieres wrote in 2014. Instead, Benedict told him to “form a new clergy,” according to the bishop. He took that advice, and established his own seminary. That failed to go over with other bishops, who wanted to know what was wrong with the main seminary in Asunción.
Livieres also clashed with his fellow bishops over the candidacy of former bishop Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, who ran for president of Paraguay in 2008—and won. Lugo had ties to the liberation-theology movement, which Livieres long opposed. But Livieres also criticized Lugo for fathering children before he left the episcopate—and his brother bishops for remaining “silent” about it. During a radio interview, the archbishop of Asunción, Pastor Cuquejo Verga, publicly called for the Vatican to investigate Livieres. In a follow-up interview, Livieres rebuffed Cuquejo’s suggestion, and called him a homosexual.
In August 2009, Crispin Angel Silva, the leader of a lay Catholic association in Ciudad del Este, complained to the local media about Livieres’s style of governance, his “misappropriation of funds,” his “unfair dismissal of priests,” and his decision to bring on Urrutigoity. Silva organized hundreds of Catholics to protest outside the bishop’s residence. They called for his resignation, and, with the help of a canon lawyer, sent their request to the Vatican. Reportedly three Paraguayan bishops flew to Rome to share their worries about Livieres’s governance with the Holy See. But nothing happened.
Emboldened by the apparent support from Rome, Livieres courted controversy in early 2014 by promoting Urrutigoity to vicar general—second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este. The decision made international headlines, forcing the new bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Joseph Bambera, to respond to a local paper’s report on Urrutigoity’s history in the diocese, where he was accused of fondling young men while they slept (he has denied the allegations under oath). The article claimed that Bishop Joseph Martino “allowed” Urrutigoity to transfer to Ciudad del Este. The Diocese of Scranton’s statement, issued March 15, noted that Martino strenuously objected to Livieres’s request to excardinate Urrutigoity, but failed to mention that Martino eventually said he would grant that request. Bambera brought his concerns about Urrutigoity’s promotion to the attention of Pope Francis, according to a spokesman for the diocese. “In so doing, Bishop Bambera’s participation in this matter ceased.” The bishop refused to comment further.
Meanwhile, the Catholics of Paraguay—bishops, priests, and laypeople—renewed their public protest of Livieres’s leadership. Again they took their case to the Holy See. But this time there was a different result.
On July 2, 2014, the Vatican announced that it would send investigators to the Diocese of Ciudad del Este. Before issuing their final report on the diocese, the investigators informed Livieres that he could no longer ordain anyone for the priesthood—a virtually unprecedented disciplinary act. Two months later, Pope Francis would remove Livieres.
Before the Vatican investigators arrived, Urrutigoity was relieved of his duties as vicar general. In an August 2014 interview, Urrutigoity claimed he was removed at the suggestion of the papal ambassador to Paraguay. (When asked whether he was a pedophile, he said that he was not. The interviewer did not ask whether he had fondled young men while they slept.)
Livieres replaced Urrutigoity with Fr. Dominic Carey, a Canadian whose affiliation with the SSJ dates back to the early 1990s, before the group was ousted from the Society of St. Pius X and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He would go on to become the SSJ’s main fundraiser—that was one of the reasons Bishop Joseph Martino wanted to meet him. But Carey left for Paraguay without Martino’s permission. “I never laid eyes on him,” Martino testified in 2008.
Carey admitted that some SSJ priests shared their beds with boys, but claimed there was nothing sexual about the practice, according to the 2002 affidavit of Diane Toler, a former supporter of the SSJ. “Father [Carey] said that this was Fr. Urrutigoity’s method of having the Society priests bond with boys,” she testified. (Under oath, Urrutigoity denied sharing beds with boys; the sworn testimony of several others disputed his claim.) Carey did not respond to a request for comment.
Livieres’s response to the Holy See’s inquiry shocked close observers of the Catholic Church. Usually when bishops are subject to Vatican scrutiny, they quietly allow the Vatican to do its work. Not Livieres. Almost as soon as the Holy See announced its investigation, he published a ten-page response—defending himself and Urrutigoity—on the homepage of the diocesan website. The document, titled “Support to Bishop Livieres,” went into excruciating detail about the resistance Livieres encountered when he arrived in Ciudad del Este. In every dispute, Livieres is portrayed as taking the side of the angels. His critics come off as warped by unsavory ideologies such as liberation theology. Livieres even repeated his accusation that the archbishop of Ascuncion was gay. Rarely has the Catholic Church seen such a brazen display of episcopal defiance.
Livieres’s 2014 defense of Urrutigoity looked much like the one he issued in 2008. He praised the priest’s ministerial gifts, denied that he had molested anyone, falsely stated that prosecutors didn’t bring charges because the accusations lacked merit, claimed Urrutigoity was the victim of a smear campaign aided by a scandal-mongering U.S. media, named the plaintiff in the John Doe case, and claimed that Urrutigoity came to Ciudad del Este on the recommendation of some cardinals in Rome—including Joseph Ratzinger, who would go on to be elected Pope Benedict XVI.
The document rebutted the allegations of bed-sharing by producing heavily redacted copies of Urrutigoity’s psychological evaluations—the ones he refused to produce during the John Doe lawsuit. Those reports, according to Livieres, “confirmed” Urrutigoity’s heterosexuality. Only one sentence from the Southdown Institute report is visible in the copy posted to the Diocese of Ciudad del Este website: “The Abel Assessment of Sexual Interest suggests that he is heterosexual and has no enduring interest in males.” The Abel Assessment has been widely criticized by mental-health experts as unreliable, and in several jurisdictions it is inadmissible in court. The defense brief continued: “These evaluations discarded any possibility of psychopathies or personality disorders.” In fact, the Southdown report classified Urrutigoity’s “problems…under the umbrella of personality disorders, principally antisocial and narcissistic,” according to the minutes of a March 21, 2002, meeting of the Diocese of Scranton’s Independent Review Board.
The brief ends with a dramatic flourish, recalling the “unfair trial and suppression of the Jesuit missionaries [to Paraguay] in the late eighteenth century,” depicted in the 1986 film The Mission. It compares the allegations against Livieres and Urrutigoity to those made against the Jesuit missionaries: “They were also accused by questionable ecclesiastics in league with powerful lobbies and politicians.” But, the document concludes, “those who are betting that the story will be repeated in our diocese may be surprised to discover that now the bishop of Rome is heir to those Jesuits [Pope Francis is a Jesuit]…ready to write the story in a new way.” As the webpage loads, the score to The Mission plays automatically.
Despite that impressive effort, Vatican investigators were not persuaded. On September 25, 2014, the Holy See announced that Livieres was resigning. Strangely, the news release did not mention the canon law on which Livieres’s resignation was based. It simply explained that Livieres was being replaced “for the greater good and unity” of the diocese. Canon law is clear that a pope can appoint a bishop, but removing one is a different matter. That’s why, in the unusual event that a pope wants to get rid of a bishop, it is said that the bishop resigns his office. Reportedly Pope Francis had to ask several times before Livieres would give up his diocese. Last month, Pope Francis codified his ability to seek the resignations of bishops.
Soon after the Holy See revealed Livieres’s resignation, a spokesman claimed that the decision was mainly about Livieres’s management—especially his relations with other bishops—not sexual-abuse allegations. But there’s no question that the Urrutigoity controversy was a precipitating event for the departure of Bishop Livieres.
He did not go quietly. Livieres called the decision to replace him “unfounded” and “arbitrary,” according to a September 25, 2014, letter he sent to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. (The letter leaked to the press days after it was written.) “I had the blessing of being supported by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI,” Livieres continued. “I understand that Pope Francis has decided to pull his support.” The pope, Livieres concluded, “will have to give an account [of his decision] to God.”
The Livieres case became something of a cause célèbre among conservative Catholics. The conservative Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister called the pope’s decision “outlandish”—because Francis is a Jesuit and Livieres is Opus Dei—and reproduced the entirety of Livieres’s defense brief. Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, another conservative outlet, reported the concerns of “many” that Francis deposed Livieres for “ideological reasons.” Yet even the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli—which has repeatedly published speculation that Francis is harder on conservatives than he is on liberals—dismissed claims that Livieres was unjustly removed: “The bishop’s fall was indeed mostly of his own making.”
Livieres’s replacement, Heinz Wilhelm Steckling—born in Germany—was installed on December 21. Steckling previously served as superior general of his religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He has served as a consultant for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Steckling is currently pictured on the Diocese of Ciudad del Este’s website. But the main story on the homepage remains “Support to Bishop Livieres.” Other vestiges of Livieres’s tenure remain on the site. For example, Fr. Dominic Carey is still listed as vicar general. After being asked by e-mail whether the diocese was aware that sworn testimony alleged that Carey had defended the practice of men sharing beds with boys, a spokesperson replied, “Let this be the last time that you address this Press Department in such a rude tone,” and suggested Carey was no longer the vicar general. “In case you didn’t know,” the spokesperson continued, “when a diocese is declared vacant, all the charges cease. That should answer your question about Fr. Dominic. And this is the last question I will answer you from this e-mail.” The spokesperson did not reply to a follow-up query.
What Bishop Steckling plans to do with the Society of St. John remains unknown.
Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity currently has no ministerial assignment, and resides somewhere in the Diocese of Ciudad del Este, according to a diocesan spokesperson. He remains a priest in good standing.
Eric Ensey, who was accused of sexually abusing a minor, was thought to be living in Rome and California as late as 2007. In 2011, the Vancouver Sun reported that for the previous five years a Vancouver priest had been soliciting donations from parishioners for the Society of St. John in Paraguay—at Ensey’s behest. The cleric, John Horgan, never informed donors about the SSJ’s history. Without those donations, Fr. Dominic Carey reportedly told parishioners, the SSJ’s seminary in Paraguay could never have been built.
On a pilgrimage to Europe led by Horgan, according to the Sun, Ensey met Charlene Anderson, who found the cassocked cleric so inspiring that she planned to invite him to Christmas so he could meet her teenaged children. That idea was scotched when her husband Googled “Eric Ensey.”
Ensey filed for bankruptcy in 2004; the case was terminated in 2010. His latest attorney of record reported that he has not had “any contact with him in years.” Ensey apparently maintains a P.O. box outside Scranton. After exhausting his appeals in the canonical case against him that began a decade ago, Ensey was finally laicized in 2014.
Some of the original members of the Society of St. John found assignments elsewhere. Fr. Dominic O’Connor, who succeeded Urrutigoity as superior of the Society of St. John, asked Bishop Martino for permission to relocate to the Diocese of Nottingham in 2005. He remains there still. And Fr. Daniel Fullerton, who became superior general after O’Connor, received Martino’s permission to serve as a chaplain to the U.S Navy.
Deacon Joseph Levine, another former superior general of the SSJ, sought ordination as a priest of the Diocese of Scranton. But Martino was not comfortable with Levine’s “generous verbal excuses for the conduct of some members of the Society of St. John,” the bishop testified. So he put him in a seminary he trusted in order to get a “totally objective group of people to look at him.” Levine was eventually assigned to a parish in Philadelphia, but his public support of the SSJ caused “quite a stir,” according to Martino, and he had to be moved to another parish—where the same thing happened. Levine decided to seek ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, but an open letter to the bishop brought that plan to a halt. The letter was written by Jeffrey Bond—hired by Urrutigoity to establish his dreamed-of Catholic college, only to become the SSJ’s fiercest critic. Bond alleged that Levine had told him that “Urrutigoity was like St. Ignatius of Loyola, insofar as he operates on a plane ‘above the realm of human reason and prudence.’” During Martino’s 2008 deposition, he was asked whether Levine had ever been made a priest, and the bishop replied, “I hope not.”
Levine was eventually ordained a priest, and he now serves as pastor of a parish in the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He declined to be interviewed, but offered a written statement explaining that he hasn’t been in touch with Urrutigoity in about a decade, and has never had contact with the SSJ in Paraguay. He has “no direct knowledge of any of the accusations” against Urrutigoity. Still, “it seems to me that the three specific accusations of which I am aware together make a strong case against Fr. Urrutigoity,” Levine concluded.
Other early members of the SSJ have left the priesthood behind. Fr. Marshall Roberts vacated the Diocese of Scranton without permission and became the pastor of a schismatic group in Jacksonville, Florida. Fr. Basel Sarweh asked to be dispensed from the clerical state in 2006.
But Fr. Anthony Myers, now fifty, has not left the priesthood. When he worked with the SSJ in Scranton, he was Br. Anthony Myers. In 2000, while residing at the Society’s property in Shohola, Myers took umbrage when John Doe, who sued Urrutigoity and Ensey for sexual abuse, dared to criticize Urrutigoity’s lavish spending habits, according to Doe’s sworn testimony. Myers “cussed at me for over an hour and a half, saying that I was an insolent arrogant prick and that I had no business making these observations and Fr. Urrutigoity was a priest and knew better than me and I needed to leave the premises unless I wrote a retraction, which I did,” Doe said. Myers insisted that the young man include the following sentence in his letter of apology to Urrutigoity: “I put my trust in your judgment of all situations arising,” according to Doe.
Myers moved to Ciudad del Este with other SSJs and was ordained by Livieres in 2006. He authored several of the Society’s newsletters after the group had reestablished itself in Paraguay. But it seems that Myers no longer exercises his ministry exclusively in Ciudad del Este. In late 2013, he posted a video to YouTube seeking financial support for a new endeavor—a co-ed bilingual K-12 school on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. “Please pray for us down here," Myers says at the start of the film, "for the many families who are trying to do their little part to restore all things in Christ.” (The Archdiocese of Buenos Aires did not respond to a request for comment; neither did Myers.)
The video features interviews with students. A girl prays in Latin. Another sings. A young man touts the benefits of the school’s small class sizes. A junior discusses her dance studies—“for some reason Father thinks it’s liturgical.” Boys serve as acolytes at a Latin Mass. Half a dozen of them stand around Myers joking and answering the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
“By uniting their hearts and voices with the angels and saints in the chant at Holy Mass,” the film’s closing text explains, “students at the colegio participate in the Christian fellowship of heaven.” The screen fades briefly to black before displaying words that recall church teaching on the Kingdom of God: “Already, but not yet fully.”