Bishop in scandal-ridden Italian diocese resigns

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The bishop was a hero to traditionalist Catholics but he also welcomed priests and seminarians with shady pasts and lurid accusations against them.

Bishop Mario Oliveri leads a mass on July 8, 2009.  Oliveri is resigning after leading the Diocese of Albenga-Imperia for more than 25 years. Photo courtesy of RiccardoP1983 via Wikimedia Commons.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) An Italian bishop who was a hero to traditionalist Catholics has resigned following a Vatican investigation into priests and seminarians accused of various scandals including posting naked photos on gay websites and sexually harassing parishioners.

The Vatican gave no official reason why Pope Francis on Thursday (Sept. 1) accepted the resignation of Bishop Mario Oliveri of the Diocese of Albenga-Imperia nearly three years before the official retirement age of 75.

But it was clear that Francis wanted him gone.

Oliveri’s small northern Italian diocese, which he had run for more than 25 years, had become a magnet for devotees of the old Latin Mass and other high church rituals.

But while Oliveri was not accused of wrongdoing, he welcomed clerics and seminarians with questionable reputations; some had even been expelled from other dioceses for misconduct.

Accusations that began emerging in 2014 described “playboy priests” who moonlighted as barmen and raided church coffers. One of Oliveri’s priests was reportedly found guilty of organizing an under-age prostitution ring.

Others posted nude photos of themselves on Facebook and gay websites and some priests were accused of sexually harassing parishioners and living with gay partners.

The pope ordered an investigation into Oliveri’s diocese after the scandal broke in October 2014 and Adriano Bernardini, an apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, was sent to conduct an investigation into the lurid claims.

Francis appointed Bishop Guglielmo Borghetti as the de facto head of the diocese in January 2015, giving him some administrative authority. The pope then met personally with Oliveri at the Vatican in April, prompting speculation that Oliveri’s resignation was imminent.

In a farewell message posted on the diocese’s website, Oliveri said he loved the diocese “and especially its priests.”

Borghetti posted his own message, saying he was dedicated to “renewing” the diocese. He predicted that he would not please either “traditionalists” not “progressives,” but that he hoped to “give the best of myself to serve with the passion of love every human person, above all the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged.”

Italian media and traditionalist websites have reported that since Borghetti arrived in the diocese last year, seven out of the diocese’s 12 seminarians have been dismissed and the diocese has instituted a policy of accepting only seminarians from the diocese itself.

(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)

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