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Deposed Puerto Rican bishop pushes for Pope Francis meeting

A deposed Puerto Rican bishop continues to make efforts to meet with Pope Francis, nearly three months after his removal from the Diocese of Arecibo was announced by the Holy See March 9.

In a canonical brief obtained by The Pillar, Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres claims he has not been given any official statement on the reasons for his removal, and that he was not offered any opportunity to address Vatican concerns over his leadership before he was removed from office.

Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres. Credit: Diocese of Arecibo

“As of today, Bishop Fernández has not been told exactly how he was disobedient to the Pope or how his disagreements with some of the actions of his fellow bishops disrupted communion,” the brief argues.

“Nor has he been charged, verbally or in writing, with a crime or a delict by any competent superior authority. He has not been told or instructed on how his ministry had become harmful or ineffective for any reason. There was no investigation prior to the decree of appointment to replace Bishop Fernández with an apostolic administrator.”

The brief, which requests a meeting with Pope Francis, has been circulated among some senior figures in the Vatican, The Pillar has confirmed, but Fernández has not yet filed it with Pope Francis or the Congregation for Bishops.

But a source close to the bishop told The Pillar that Fernández is preparing to file it officially, after several requests for a meeting in recent weeks have gone without a response.

The bishop “has been reaching out every week, through the Secretariat of State, through the papal household, through anywhere that he can try to get a meeting. He wants to meet with the Holy Father and explain his case,” the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, explained.

The bishop’s canonical brief argues that Pope Francis should observe 2016 norms the pope promulgated for the penal trial of a bishop.

“Because no investigation ever took place, Bishop Fernández is exerting his right as a [member of the] Christian faithful to request the Congregation of Bishops to follow the guidelines set forth in the Apostolic Letter Come una madre amorevole and to adhere to the canons regulating administrative acts (cc 48-58) and the privation of office (c.196).”

“Bishop Fernández has always been obedient to the Roman Pontiff. There is no record of disobedience. There is no record of Bishop Fernández questioning the authority of the Supreme Pontiff or the exercise of the same. In fact, Bishop Fernández has affirmed his obedience to and communion with the Holy Father,” the text argues.

Fernández was “relieved” of the pastoral care of his diocese March 9, according to a Vatican communique released that day, and an apostolic administrator was appointed to govern the Arecibo diocese.

Media reports at the time noted that Fernández had declined to sign a joint statement with the other bishops of Puerto Rico on “the moral duty to be vaccinated” against the coronavirus, even after he was asked to do so by the island’s apostolic delegate. The bishop issued his own statement on the subject before the episcopal conference did so.

In March, Fernández wrote that he believed disagreement over areas of emphasis on the vaccine issue were “the touchstone that sets off all this controversy.”

The bishop added that his own statement on the subject included the CDF’s recognition of conscientious objection to vaccines, came in response to both Puerto Rican policy on the subject and his sense of the need for a “letter of pastoral accompaniment to those who, in a genuine conflict of conscience, came to be listened to and treated with mercy.”

“I have never denied that getting vaccinated is not an act of love for others, but neither that those who do not do it for a reason of conscience love their brothers less,” the bishop wrote.

When his removal was announced, there were also reports that the bishop had failed to respect his brother bishops, because he did not send his seminarians to an interdiocesan seminary opened by the Puerto Rican bishops in March 2020.

In a statement published on the diocesan website on March 9 - the day his removal was announced - the bishop said he had been “replaced without even undertaking what would be a due canonical process to remove a parish priest.”

In the same March statement, the bishop said he was told by the pope’s representative in Puerto Rico, apostolic delegate Archbishop Ghaleb Bader, that he “had not been obedient to the pope, nor had [he] had sufficient communion with [his] brother bishops of Puerto Rico.”

Correspondence obtained by The Pillar shows that Fernández pushed back on requests for his resignation for months before his removal was announced.

In his brief, Fernández alleged that several Puerto Rican bishops had pushed for his removal from office because of disagreements over his statement on vaccines, on his decision to send seminarians to a seminary in Spain, and over disagreement about a 2018 lawsuit against the Archdiocese of San Juan, which pertained to archdiocesan pension obligations.

The lawsuit led to a fight in Puerto Rican courts about whether other dioceses could be held responsible for the liabilities of the San Juan archdiocese — a fight which reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the bishop’s brief claimed that amid the legal fight Archbishop González Nieves of San Juan “tried to force Bishop Fernández to enter into a civil lawsuit to which he was not a party and argued that he had to do so because the majority of the Episcopal Conference had decided to enter into the lawsuit.”

“The facts demonstrate that a bishop or some bishops did not like Bishop Fernández’s legitimate position on vaccines, the interdiocesan seminary, and the civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese of San Juan, and in an effort to eliminate him, they angled to have him removed, but because there are no legitimate reasons, nothing was put in writing, only verbal. Bishop Fernández has affirmed his communion with his brother bishops in Puerto Rico,” the bishop’s brief said.

The bishop claims that Nieves has raised issues about his leadership for years.

In a 2009 letter reviewed by The Pillar, written while Fernández was a San Juan auxiliary bishop, Nieves urged Puerto Rico’s apostolic delegate to transfer Fernández to a U.S. diocese, rather than see him become Bishop of Arecibo.

Nieves lamented that his auxiliary bishop caused “friction” within the island’s small episcopal conference by voting against measures otherwise unanimously supported, and by “rigidity” in his engagement with others. The bishop said that Fernández rarely socialized with priests of the diocese, and could be “scolding” in his engagement with them.

Nieves told the apostolic delegate that Fernández could learn to develop better episcopal collegiality in the “larger and more dynamic” church in the United States.

In 2010, Fernández was appointed Bishop of Arecibo.

The bishop’s canonical brief was direct about Fernández’ belief that Nieves acted to orchestrate his removal from office.

“Clearly a pattern of attempts to force compliance by Archbishop González Nieves has been established,” the brief argued.

The Archbishop of San Juan told The Pillar Wednesday that he was “not authorized” to discuss Fernández’ removal from office.

Fernández’ brief also rebuffed a March 15 claim from Arecibo’s diocesan administrator, Bishop Álvaro Corrada del Río, S.J., who told the Arecibo presbyterate during a meeting that Cardinal Blase Cupich had been involved in the decision to remove Fernández from office.

The cardinal’s October meeting with Fernández was a kind of unofficial apostolic visitation to the diocese, Corrada reportedly told the priests of the diocese, before retracting the claim last month.

In his brief, Fernández argued that: “there was no Apostolic Visitation, but the current Apostolic Administrator says Cardinal Cupich is behind this whole mess, and that the cardinal administered an Apostolic Visitation….Cardinal Cupich never conducted an apostolic visitation. It would have been announced, and it would have included formal steps known to Bishop Fernández and the parties involved, not to mention a mandate appointing him as an apostolic visitor.”

The bishop’s text added that while there was no visitation, “in October 2021, Cardinal Cupich had dinner with Bishop Fernández with the people from the Catholic Extension and discussed topics such as federal aid for hurricane relief, and a brief casual mention of the seminary and vocations – hardly considered an apostolic visitation, let alone a fraternal visitation.”

The Pillar asked the Archdiocese of Chicago whether Cupich played any role in the Arecibo decision, but the archdiocese did not offer a response.

It is not clear whether Fernández will be granted a meeting with Pope Francis.

A source close to the bishop told The Pillar that the bishop “truly believes that if he can talk to the Holy Father he can clear up any misunderstandings.”

The bishop’s brief insists that “Bishop Fernández refuses to accept the accusation that he is disobedient to the Holy Father.”

“The removal of  Bishop Fernández has already caused wonderment and questions of injustice,” the text added.

“Bishop Fernández requests to meet with Peter to discuss this matter and what the Holy Spirit desires for us: the bond of charity and unity in Truth, and the possibilities regarding the removal.”

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