Pope Francis removes Paraguayan bishop (UPDATED)

This morning the Holy See press office announced that Pope Francis has removed Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, who had been bishop of the diocese of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Usually such statements say that the pope has accepted the resignation of a bishop. Not in this case. The Holy See plainly says that Livieres is being replaced. According to the statement, the decision was made “for the greater good and unity” of the local church and episcopal communion. But the move follows a July investigation of the diocese, following complaints from local lay Catholics and clergy, including an archbishop, about Livieres’s style of governance, and his decision to bring on and then promote to vicar general an Argentine priest who has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct—dating back to the late 1980s. (The Holy See’s announcement says nothing about the accused priest.)

After the initial investigation, but before the pope had studied the investigators’ report, the Vatican announced that the accused priest—Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity (whose story I’ve been covering over a series of posts)—had been removed from his position as vicar general. The Holy See also took the unusual step of forbidding Bishop Livieres from ordaining any more priests.

In response, Livieres posted a long defense brief on the website of his diocese. That document—itself a remarkable development (bishops don’t usually publicly refute Vatican sanctions)—claimed that Urrutigoity was wrongly accused, that he and Livieres were the victims of a smear campaign, and that Livieres invited Urrutigoity into the diocese on the recommendation of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now pope emeritus). The statement rebuked the archbishop of Asuncion—Livieres’s metropolitan—for “attacking” Urrutigoity, going so far as to allege that the archbishop himself was accused and “processed” for engaging in “homosexual activity.” In other words, Bishop Livieres was really feeling his oats.

He’s likely experiencing another sensation now.

Update after the jump:

So what does this mean? First, if you're a bishop who has not been handling cases of priests credibly accused of abuse very well, you may have already started happy hour.

In the United States, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse. The case has cost his diocese millions. Many of his people no longer trust him. (But boy howdy has he not lost the support of Bill Donohue.) But nothing has happened to him. He remains in charge, despite repeated calls for him to resign.

And in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop John Nienstedt has been under intense scrutiny for nearly a year, after Minnesota Public Radio reported that the archdiocese had been badly mishandling recent cases of suspected abuse. Nienstedt has hired a layman to oversee the archdiocese's response to accusations of clerical abuse, and claims he has learned from past mistakes. But the local church is hurting. Local priests and laypeople have told me that the archdiocese is in a kind of spiritual holding pattern.

It didn't help matters when I reported over the summer that Nienstedt was himself the subject of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct involving adults (allegations the archbishop firmly denies). The outside firm hired by the archdiocese to look into those claims has submitted its findings to the chancery. But the archdiocese says the full investigation is not yet complete. When it is finished, the archdiocese claims it will forward the report to the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C. Has that happened yet? The archdiocese has not responded to my request for comment. Will the archdiocese release the full report? It won't say.

It's not at all clear that Pope Francis is well informed about what's been happening in Kansas City or in the Twin Cities. He sent investigators to Cuidad del Este. That hasn't happened to anyone here yet (unless you happen to be a member of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious). This is a pope who believes in process (he is, after all, a Jesuit). Remember, he didn't take out the so-called Bishop of Bling until the local bishops conference conducted its own investigation. Was Livieres's fate already sealed before the Vatican came calling in July? Possibly. But Francis chose to send investigators rather than decide without getting a fuller picture of the local situation.

Also somewhat unclear: Why the Holy See's statement did not mention the canon law on which the decision was based. Usually when bishops are removed for bad behavior, the Vatican cites a canon (1389, 2, which says that clerics abuse their office may be removed). That gives you some sense of what went wrong. But in this case the Holy See vaguely referred to the unity of the local church--and of local bishops. It didn't mention anything about the scandal Livieres had brought by hiring and promoting Urrutigoity. Not that Vatican statements traditionally offer a transparent window on papal decision-making. But when it comes to cases of accused priests, it's well past time to rethink that approach.

Of course, the pope has the authority to remove a bishop pretty much at will--see canon 1405. Perhaps Livieres's status as a member of Opus Dei had something to do with this curious omission. As a personal prelature (that is, a personal prelature of the pope), Opus Dei is goverened by its own statutes and falls under the jurisdiction of the Holy See and the Congregation for Bishops. Or maybe Rome is just improvising.

Either way, this is welcome news. Unless you're a bishop who's enabled abusive priests.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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