Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Thursday sacked a Paraguayan bishop accused of protecting and promoting a priest described by his former church superiors in the United States as "a serious threat to young people".
In a statement, the Vatican said the removal of Ciudad del Este Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano had been a "painful decision taken for serious pastoral reasons."
There was no mention of the precise circumstances behind the dismissal of the conservative bishop, as opposed to the more customary acceptance of his resignation.
The move follows a visit to Paraguay by senior Vatican officials charged with investigating a case that had led to a public war of words between the South American country's senior clerics.
"This grave decision of the Holy See was taken for serious pastoral reasons and was motivated by the greater good of unity in the church of Ciudad del Este and the episcopal communion in Paraguay," the Vatican statement said.
Livieres had been publicly attacked by his colleagues in Paraguay for his sponsorship of an Argentinian-born priest who was removed from his parish in the US state of Pennsylvania in 2002 following a civil suit over the alleged abuse of boys in his pastoral care.
The Church reportedly settled the suit in 2006 with a payment of $400,000 (315,000 euros).
The priest, Carlos Urrotigoity, was sent to Canada for psychological assessment. According to US media reports, that assessment concluded that the priest was "locked into" a sexual attraction to male minors, that he should be banned from the ministry, and that he should have no contact with young people.
Despite that verdict, Urrotigoity was able to resume his Church career. He moved to Paraguay in 2004 and has prospered there under the wing of Livieres, who is thought to be a member of the conservative Opus Dei sect.
In February of this year, Urrotigoity was named as Livieres's vicar-general, the number two in the diocese and the official with responsiblity for investigating allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by priests.
- 'Serious threat to youth' -
In the United States, Urrotigoity came under the authority of the Bishop of Scranton.
Earlier this year the Scranton diocese posted a statement on its website in which it said that the then-bishop Joseph Martino had warned everyone concerned about the danger posed by the Argentinian priest, including the papal ambassadors in the United States and Paraguay.
"In every instance, Bishop Martino clearly expressed his reservations concerning Father Urrutigoity who was identified as posing a serious threat to young people."
Publicity surrounding the case triggered a spat within the Paraguyan church hierarchy. When the Archbishop of Asuncion, demanded that Urrutigoity be removed, Livieres responded by calling the senior cleric "a homosexual."
Alarmed, the Vatican in July banned Livieres from ordaining priests and ordered him to remove Urrutigoity from his position.
The Church is sensitive to charges, levied by both the United Nations and thousands of abuse victims, that, for years, it instinctively protected serial sex offenders within the clergy.
US-based victims advocacy group SNAP questioned the Vatican's failure to explain clearly the reasons for Thursday's dismissal.
"For perhaps the first time ever, the Vatican has punished a bishop, who protected and promoted a credibly accused sex offender cleric," SNAP's Barbara Dorris wrote in an email.
"The trouble is no one is sure that's why Ciudad del Este's bishop is being punished. But a corrupt bishop's removal beats a corrupt bishop's resignation."
The Vatican insists that, under Francis's leadership, it has acted to root out behaviour the pontiff has described as akin to a "Satanic Mass."
In a move sanctioned by Francis, Polish cleric Jozef Wesolowski was this week placed under house arrest pending an unprecedented trial under Vatican law for the sexual abuse of minors and possession of child pornography.
Former archbishop Wesolowski, 65, was defrocked in June after a Church tribunal found that he had abused minors during his 2008-13 stint as the Vatican's ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
Church tribunals have resulted in the defrocking of nearly 850 priest for sex abuse in the last decade, during which time hundreds of millions have been paid to settle compensation claims by victims of abuse.