Divine Justice

Is the Pope Finally Getting Serious About The Church’s Sex Scandals?

The pontiff just ousted a Paraguayan bishop no one had connected to the Church’s sex scandals. But it’s not clear why, and the Church still needs to do more.

09.25.14 4:53 PM ET

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano, head of the diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, whom Pope Francis ousted on Thursday for unspecified apparent offenses after a Vatican investigation into alleged sexual abuse in his diocese. Not even the support groups of those abused by priests had the bishop on their priority hit list. 

The Vatican gave no clear reason for removing Livieres Plano from his post in their official announcement. “After a careful examination of the findings of the Apostolic Visitations made ​​to the Bishop, dioceses and seminaries of Ciudad del Este, by the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Clergy, the Holy Father has proceeded with the replacement of Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano. He has appointed Ricardo Jorge Valenzuela Ríos, Bishop of Villarrica del Espíritu Santo, as Apostolic Administrator of the now vacant diocese.”

Support groups for victims say it is a good sign that the bishop was fired rather than being allowed to resign with dignity, but it would help if the Church were more transparent about just why the bishop got the boot. “Ousting a corrupt bishop beats accepting a corrupt bishop’s resignation,” Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Still, it’s not healthy to leave everyone speculating about the real reasons why the bishop was ousted. Kids are safer when those who risk their safety are quickly, harshly, publicly and clearly punished. That hasn’t happened here.”

The Vatican may have been cagey with its reasoning—or seeming lack thereof—for removing Livieres Plano, but the move does seem to signal a trend that victims groups should appreciate. Pope Francis has promised to adopt a zero tolerance approach to the Church’s sex abuse saga, and the ousting of this bishop along with the arrest of Joseph Wesolowski earlier this week are clearly steps in the right direction.  In Rome, there is talk of yet another prelate on the chopping block, which would definitely send the right signal that Francis means business.   (In June, the pope also ousted German bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the so-called bishop of bling for his outlandish spending in times of austerity for the Church.)

Livieres Plano, who has not been defrocked and who could theoretically be reassigned to another parish or given a job in Rome, was apparently given an opportunity to resign before he was fired, according to Italian Vatican experts who follow the details of cases like this.  

They say his offense was likely related to the promotion and alleged protection of Argentine priest Carlos Urrutigoity, who was accused of abusing minors in Scranton, Penn., which led to a $400,00 settlement with the victims. Livieres has denied protecting the predator priest, insisting that he approved the transfer because it was recommended by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who called claims against Urrutgoity “slander” just days before he was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

According to a statement posted on the Scranton diocese website, the bishop there had warned Livieres of Urrotigoity’s potential threat to minors but he was transferred anyway. “Despite these serious cautions, Bishop Rogelio Livieres informed the Diocese of Scranton that he was allowing Father Urrutigoity to incardinate into his Paraguay diocese. While the Diocese of Scranton continues its commitment to report accusations of child sexual abuse to appropriate law enforcement and governmental entities and to create safe environments for children and young people, it also recognizes the responsibility of the Universal Church to respond to such accusations responsibly, transparently and with expediency.” Apparently under Pope Francis, the Universal Church is finally starting to pay attention.