CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay (AP) — Children awaiting surgery and women fleeing domestic violence never saw the $350,000 donated for their benefit. Then, there were the questionable property sales and the money for a cleaning business partially owned by a relative.
In the months since Pope Francis ousted the bishop of Paraguay's second-largest diocese, questions keep surfacing about the Rev. Rogelio Livieres Plano's management of church money.
As Paraguayan Catholics prepare to welcome Francis during his South American tour that starts July 5, new leaders of the diocese in this eastern border city are trying to erase the debt left by the controversial bishop, raising money through raffles and bingo games. Many parishioners are demanding answers.
"The former bishop ran things like a mafia," said Carlos Pereira, a humanities professor at the Catholic University in Ciudad del Este. "How did we end up in debt? What happened to the diocese's properties, to all its assets?"
The diocese is $800,000 in debt, a considerable sum in one of South America's poorest countries. The arrears have come to light since Livieres Plano, a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement, was pushed out in September.
The 69-year-old former bishop has denied any wrongdoing. Multiple attempts to locate Livieres Plano for comment, or find someone able to speak on his behalf, were not successful. Church officials and a spokesman for Opus Dei said he is hospitalized in Argentina with diabetes complications.
It is not clear what became of funds belonging to the diocese of nearly 1 million church members. Critics claim, but have not proven, the former bishop used church money to enrich his family, support a gambling habit and live lavishly. An Associated Press review found that during his decade as bishop, Livieres Plano did make several questionable spending decisions.
Property records show that, in 2013, Livieres Plano sold two parcels for $400,000 and $202,000. He did it without the Vatican council approval required for financial decisions in Paraguay worth more than $150,000.
Last year, the bishop defended the sales by saying the trigger for approval had been "recently increased to $500,000." But Bishop Adalberto Martinez, secretary general of the Paraguay Episcopal Conference, told the AP there had been no such increase.
A 2010 lawsuit filed by the president of an association of lay church members, Javier Miranda, accused the diocese of failing to use $350,000 in donations from the Itaipu Dam, one of the world's largest hydroelectric facilities, for their intended purpose: funding surgeries on children with cleft palates and helping domestic abuse survivors.
The suit was thrown out on the grounds that Miranda had no personal claim since he was not an injured party.
An audit conducted by Paraguay's Comptroller General, however, supported Miranda's allegations, noting in a scathing 2010 report that the church had failed to turn over documentation proving it funded cleft-palate surgeries, helped street children or worked with abused women.
"This audit underscores the weak and deficient conduct of the diocese in accounting," the report said. The Comptroller General, which oversees finances of the hydroelectric dam and other government institutions, ordered the diocese to be more transparent but did not bring forward criminal charges.
In 2013, Livieres Plano filed a defamation suit against Miranda after the lay leader told local press he had learned the bishop ran up a $1 million gambling debt in Uruguay.
Testifying in the case in June 2014, the bishop said he had never been in a casino. He also defended his property sales, saying the money was used for work on seminary buildings. He blasted detractors for making "accusation after accusation without any basis."
Documents reviewed by the AP also recorded at least $40,000 in payments made to the bishop's brother, Benjamin Livieres, for unspecified services. The diocese, under Livieres Plano, was listed on 2008 incorporation papers for a company named "Green Energy" that was partially owned by the bishop's brother. The stated business purpose was to clean "toxic residues" and generate revenue for the diocese, but there is no indication the company ever got off the ground.
Benjamin Livieres did not respond to several phone calls, texts or messages via social media.
As for the church's outstanding $800,000 debt, the majority was incurred in bank loans taken out by Livieres Plano, according to diocese statements. The church declined to release annual financial statements to the AP.
Pope Francis removed Livieres Plano without commenting on the unusual action. The ouster came soon after Francis sent Cardinal Santos Abril, a financial expert, to Paraguay to investigate.
Bishop Guillermo Steckling, who took over the diocese five months ago, acknowledged he had discovered several accounting irregularities from his predecessor. However, he ruled out pushing for criminal charges, arguing the diocese needed healing after years of divisions.
"We are all a family," he said, sitting in the old office of Livieres Plano, which still has his picture on the wall. "We need to turn the page."
Livieres Plano has blamed his dismissal on a clash of ideology. He wrote in a blog post after his ouster that opposing bishops and liberal parishioners had "persecuted" him for his conservative orthodoxy.
Supporters of the former bishop praise him for preserving traditional aspects of the church, such as celebrating the old Latin Mass. They also credit him with founding the successful San Jose seminary, which at one point had 200 seminarians, no small accomplishment at a time when most countries have a shortage of priests.
Claims of financial misconduct are "all inventions of people who don't like Livieres Plano," said Oscar Barreiro, a 27-year-old who sells books on Catholicism outside of Holy Spirit parish, where Livieres Plano often celebrated Mass.
Meanwhile, lay members have hired a lawyer to audit the diocese's finances. They also have submitted requests to the country's customs agency seeking information about at least 18 vehicles purchased by the diocese that cannot be found.
"We want the diocese to be cleansed," said Miranda. "There has been a lot of damage, and we don't yet know how much."