When the news broke a few days ago that Pope Francis has removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano from his office as bishop of the Paraguayan diocese of Ciudad del Este, it seemed on the face of things fairly clear why the action had been taken. Bishop Livieres had promoted to the rank of Vicar General a priest who, over a decade ago, had been at the centre of a messy scandal in the US diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Fr Carlos Urrutigoity had been at the head of a new traditionalist institute of priests, the Society of St John (SSJ), who had taken up residence as chaplains in a boys’ school, St Gregory’s Academy, which was conducted by the Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP). Disturbing allegations began to surface, not least from the man appointed to be headmaster of the school of their own they planned, Dr Jeffrey Bond. The allegations centred on the profligate spending of donor’s money by the SSJ (a dining table costing thousands of dollars comes to mind) and on the overtly sexual behaviour of at least two of the SSJ priests, including Urrutigoity, towards boarding students, including sexual assault and, in Urrutigoity’s case, sharing bed at night with pupils (I remember, but cannot now find the reference, that Urrutigoity claimed he wanted to help break down the culture of machismo among American youth). Eventually the bishops of the day, who had been supporting them, had to suspend the priests and eventually suppress the SSJ.
What makes this imbroglio more disturbing was that Urrutiogoity had previously been expelled from the Lefebvrist SSPX seminary in Winona for sexual misconduct. Prior to his resurfacing in the mainstream Church, he had a history. It is possible that he had been the victim of malice in Winona, but surely prudence would have prompted most bishops to discretion in dealing with him.
So when it came to light earlier this year that Urrutigoity was now in Paraguay, a priest in good standing, and moreover a Vicar General, many were disturbed. Many suspected that the American diocese of Scranton had kept silence on Urrutigoity’s record so that he could quietly transfer to Paraguay, and thus out of it responsibility. The current bishop of Scranton was stung and issued a statement clarifying matters, in particular that the diocese had in fact warned the Paraguayans about Fr Urrutigoity’s troubling history, and advised against taking him on as a priest, let alone making him vicar general. In the wake of these revelations, Rome announced an apostolic visitation of the diocese of Ciudad del Este in July. On the basis, we presume, of its findings the pope has now deposed Bishop Livieres.
It all seemed fairly straightforward and sensible, if drastic. Though Bishop Livieres had claimed that Urrutigoity was the innocent victim of defamation and malice, and despite the diocese supporting the bishop, it was clear enough that the bishop had shown seriously poor judgment at the very least. But enough to depose him?
Well, Fr Lombardi of the Vatican Press Office has clarified the reasons the pope has deposed Bishop Livieres, and in answering one set of questions he has opened up another. Fr Lombardi, it seems, has suggested that Bishop Livieres was deposed not so much because of his gross indiscretion in accepting and promoting Fr Urrutigoity, but because he had a very poor relationship with the other bishops in Paraguay. The other bishops accused him of breaking “ecclesial communion”, and of fraud and embezzlement. Also, some highlight Bishop Livieres’ opposition to the Paraguayan President, Fernando Lugo, who left the episcopacy and the priesthood in order to stand for high political office; the other Paraguayan bishops approved this extraordinary step by Lugo.
So we are left with the impression that Bishop Livieres has been deposed primarily because he is out of step with the other bishops in Paraguay, and in particular with the onetime-bishop-now-President, who preferred secular power to spiritual authority. Many have argued that the creation of national bishops’ conferences has compromised a bishop’s rightful sovereignty in his diocese and introduced pressures to conform to the national consensus. Here we have a case in point. It is not as if Bishop Livieres was a poor performer by many measures. He opened his own seminary and, despite rejecting over 50% of candidates, priestly numbers in his diocese have grown from 79 to 140 since 2004. In the same period baptisms have risen from 9,543 to 21,556. Most bishops would covet such numbers as a measure of an effective episcopal administration.
Apostolic visitors do not issue public reports, so we might never know if Bishop Livieres is indeed guilty of financial misconduct. If he is, he deserved to be replaced. This, coupled with his manifest blunder in promoting the suspect Urrutigoity to high office, would be a strong argument for such firm action. However, if the real reason is, in fact, that this bishop was merely out of step with the other bishops, acted independently for the benefit of his own diocese, growing the numbers both of Catholics and clergy, and fearlessly (though possibly indiscreetly) speaking his mind on controversial local issues, then many will be left wondering if a basically good bishop has been victimized not for any crime against law or doctrine, but for rocking the boat too vigorously in his pursuit of a healthy local Church. If so, his error with regard to Fr Urrutigoity looms not quite so large. And many will now be louder in questioning what exactly might be the direction Pope Francis is seeking to take the Church. A more fundamental and enduring question might centre on the role and nature of national bishops’ conferences, and their effect on an individual bishop’s freedom to shepherd his own flock.
As a Chinaman might observe, we live in interesting times.