VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Thursday forcibly removed a conservative Paraguayan bishop who had clashed with his fellow bishops on ideological grounds and promoted a priest accused of inappropriate sexual behavior.
The removal of Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement, marks the second time Francis has kicked out a conservative bishop for the sake of keeping peace among the faithful and unity among bishops.
In March, he ousted the "bling bishop" of Limburg, Germany, whose 31-million-euro ($43-million) new residence complex caused an uproar among the faithful.
Livieres was named bishop of Paraguay's second city, Ciudad del Este, in 2004 and immediately disturbed other more progressive Paraguayan bishops by opening his own seminary that followed a much more orthodox line than the main seminary in the capital, Asuncion. Paraguay's bishops are known for their progressive bent in a poor country where liberation theology found fertile ground.
Relations between Livieres and the rest of Paraguay's bishops worsened when he got into a public spat with the then-archbishop of Asuncion, whom he accused of being gay.
Livieres also infuriated advocates for victims of sexual abuse by taking in and promoting an Argentine priest, the Rev. Carlos Urrutigoity, whose former superior in the U.S. had said was a "serious threat to young people."
Urrutigoity has denied allegations of sexual impropriety, has never been charged and hasn't been accused of sexually abusing minors. In 2004, though, the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, settled a lawsuit against him, another priest and the diocese for $400,000. The suit had alleged the two men engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct, the Global Post has reported.
Earlier this year, the Vatican sent a cardinal to investigate problems in Livieres' diocese, particularly concerning the seminary. The investigator reported back to Francis, and Livieres was summoned to Rome this week to discuss his future.
Colleagues say he refused Vatican requests to resign, leaving Francis with what the Vatican said was the "onerous" decision to remove him. The Vatican said in a statement Thursday that Francis acted for the good of the church in the diocese and for the sake of unity among Paraguayan bishops.
He named Bishop Ricardo Jorge Valenzuela Ríos, a Paraguayan, to temporarily replace Livieres.
There was no reference in the Vatican statement that Livieres' removal had anything to do with Urrutigoity. Rather, the Vatican spoke of the need to maintain unity among Paraguay's bishops, suggesting that political and ideological issues were of far greater concern to Rome and that Urrutigoity's past was a secondary factor.
As a result, the removal underscored the deep ideological shift in the Catholic Church with Francis in charge. Vatican watchers say it is highly unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI would have removed either Livieres or the "bling bishop," since both had strong supporters among the more conservative prelates in Rome who appreciated their firm orthodoxy in the face of opposition from more progressive parts of the church.
In a letter late Thursday to the head of the Vatican office for bishops, Livieres complained that he had never received the written report from the Vatican investigation and was never asked to respond to any of its findings.
He called the decision to remove him "unfounded and arbitrary" and based purely on ideological grounds, with the decks stacked against him from the start by fellow bishops jealous that his seminary was attracting new priests while theirs in Asuncion withered.
He even took a slight dig at Francis, complaining that while there is much talk under Francis about mercy, dialogue, decentralization of the church and respect for the authority of local church leaders, "I never got the chance to speak to Pope Francis, not even to clarify any doubts or concerns."
Urrutigoity had been a member of the schismatic, traditionalist Society of St. Pius X. After leaving the society, he joined the Scranton diocese, where he founded a priestly society where the pre-Vatican II old Latin Mass was celebrated. In 2004, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino suppressed the society, citing financial instability and allegations of sexual misconduct against Urrutigoity.
Despite Martino's warnings, Livieres in 2005 allowed Urrutigoity to join his diocese in Paraguay's second-largest city.
Urrutigoity's supporters say he is the victim of a smear campaign, first in the United States and now by Paraguayan prelates who have an ideological axe to grind with Livieres. Advocates for sex abuse victims say Urrutigoity is a predator and that Livieres deserved to be punished for ignoring warnings about him.
Francis has made clear his disdain for traditionalist Catholics, finding them self-absorbed retrogrades who are out of touch with the church's evangelizing mission today. His emphasis on a "church for the poor" is also something of a different focus than Opus Dei, which has a reputation of being an elitist movement that, while active in charity, attracts the wealthy and powerful.
The removal is a blow to Opus Dei, which on Saturday will be celebrating the beatification of its late superior in Madrid.
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