(RNS) A showdown between Pope Francis and a conservative bishop in Paraguay is heating up as the bishop rejected charges that he sheltered a priest accused of sexual misconduct, and claimed that Pope Benedict XVI himself vouched for the suspect cleric just days before his election as pope in 2005.
The conflict between the Vatican and Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este was sparked by revelations in March that the bishop had promoted a Catholic priest who had been barred from ministry in Pennsylvania after church officials there said he molested several boys.
Last month, Rome dispatched a cardinal and an archbishop to Paraguay to investigate, and on July 30 the Vatican said it was removing the priest, the Rev. Carlos Urrutigoity, from his job as the diocese’s No. 2 official. It also took the unusual step of barring Livieres from ordaining any men to the priesthood.
In a detailed and sharply worded 12-point rebuttal to Rome, the Paraguayan diocese said Urrutigoity has been the subject of “a long and harsh defamation campaign in the U.S.” and said he came “recommended by some cardinals with roles in the Vatican.”
One of those cardinals, it said, was Joseph Ratzinger, who “was elected pope Benedict XVI a few days later,” in April 2005.
Benedict, who resigned in February 2013, has been praised for toughening church policies against abusive priests. Before his election as pope, he ran the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has jurisdiction over all abuse cases.
Urrutigoity was accused of abuse in a highly publicized lawsuit in Scranton, Pa., in 2002. At the time, he and another priest, Eric Ensey, were suspended by then-Bishop James Timlin amid allegations they had sexually molested students at St. Gregory’s Academy in Elmhurst, now closed. The diocese reportedly reached a $450,000 settlement in the case in 2006.
Timlin’s successor, Bishop Joseph Martino, who is also retired, in 2005 shut down the Society of St. John, a conservative group that Urrutigoity had founded; the group was known for promoting the old Latin Mass and for lavish spending.
By then, Urrutigoity had moved to Paraguay, along with a number of priests and lay people from Scranton, to reconstitute the society under the auspices of Livieres, a member of the Opus Dei order who had developed a reputation as an outspoken conservative, even in the Paraguayan hierarchy.
At the time, Martino alerted Livieres and the Vatican ambassadors to the U.S. and Paraguay about the accusations against Urrutigoity, which a church review board had found credible.
But Livieres accepted the Argentine-born Urrutigoity, eventually named him a monsignor and then appointed him vicar general, which is the second-most powerful position in a diocese.
Media reports in March about Urrutigoity’s promotion prompted the current Scranton bishop to reiterate the objections to the priest serving in ministry anywhere, and a lengthy story in the Global Post about Urrutigoity’s checkered career also helped set in motion the chain of events leading to the confrontation between Livieres and the Vatican.
The online rebuttal by the Paraguayan diocese focuses on the Urrutigoity case but also serves as a chance for the bishop to defend himself against a range of long-standing criticisms – many from his fellow bishops — of his conservative policies and positions on church issues and Paraguayan politics.
The rejoinder concludes on an especially dramatic note, invoking the events portrayed in the award-winning film “The Mission,” about Rome’s suppression of Jesuit evangelization efforts in Paraguay in the 18th century.
“The growth and strength of the People of God in Paraguay was cruelly maimed” as a result of those events, says the statement, which is set to the famous soundtrack of the 1986 film.
“They were also accused by questionable ecclesiastics in alliance with powerful lobbies and politicians,” it adds, noting the irony that Francis is himself a Jesuit from South America who is set to “write the story” of that previous suppression “in a new way.”