Anti-COVID vaccine mandate bishop in Puerto Rico relieved of leadership by Vatican

Torres, bishop of the Diocese of Arecibo, was officially relieved of his duties in an early Wednesday statement from the Vatican. The removal of a bishop against his will is an exceptionally rare scenario. 

Many have pointed to the bishop’s vocal opposition to vaccine mandates as a possible motive, though the issue remains murky behind the characteristic veil of Catholic politics.

“The Bishops of the Puerto Rican Episcopal Conference (CEP) have received this morning an official communication from S.E.R. Bishop Ghaleb Bader, Apostolic Delegate for Puerto Rico of his Holiness, Pope Francis,” the Puerto Rican bishops’ conference wrote in a letter to the laity. “In this communication from the Holy See, we were notified of the relief of the position of Bishop of the Diocese of Arecibo, of S.E.R. Archbishop Daniel Fernandez Torres.”

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The letter from Torres’ fellow bishops stressed privacy but expressed that the moment was “difficult” for the bishop, and requested the church keep him in their prayers.

“Faced with such a painful moment for the life of the sister Diocese of Arecibo, we wholeheartedly join the request of the Apostolic Delegate himself, to pray ‘for our brother, S.E.R. Archbishop Daniel, in this difficult moment of his life and mission as Bishop.’ Similarly, we ask everyone to pray for our brother and the beloved Diocese of Arecibo,” the bishops wrote.

In this Nov. 8, 2020, file photo, Pope Francis reads his message during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican.

In this Nov. 8, 2020, file photo, Pope Francis reads his message during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter’s Square, at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, file)

“When you receive the news of my substitution as the head of the Diocese of Arecibo, I want you to know that it is not for me to explain to you a decision that I cannot explain to myself, even if I accepted it with the patience of Christ for the good of the Church,” Torres wrote in his farewell letter to the diocese.

Torres notably declined last year to sign onto a decree issued by the other Puerto Rican bishops advocating for the separation of vaccinated and unvaccinated parishioners during service.

“I was informed that I have not committed any crime, but that supposedly ‘I was not obedient to the Pope, nor did I have been in sufficient communion with my brother bishops of Puerto Rico,'” Torres claimed. “It was suggested to me that if I presented my resignation to the diocese, that I would remain at the service of the church in case that at some point they would need me in another charge; an offer which, in fact, demonstrates my innocence.”

However, Torres reportedly refused to resign, saying that he did not want to be complicit in what he saw as an “unjust” process.

Cardinals and bishops listen to Pope Francis' speech as they attend a special consistory in the Synod hall at the Vatican, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. 

Cardinals and bishops listen to Pope Francis’ speech as they attend a special consistory in the Synod hall at the Vatican, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.  (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

“This did not happen overnight. Inquiries had been going on for years,” a source told the National Catholic Register. “It seems though that what finally caused the Vatican to act was the fact that Bishop Fernández was issuing certificates to individuals that they had a valid religion exemption from getting the vaccine.”

The Puerto Rican bishops remained largely silent after their official letter, writing, “Out of deference and respect for the internal canonical processes of the Church, these will be the only official statements that will be made on this matter at the moment.”

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI asked forgiveness Tuesday for any “grievous faults” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing after an independent report criticized his actions in four cases while he was archbishop of Munich, Germany. 

In this Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007, file photo, Pope Benedict XVI and his brother Georg, right, attend a concert by the Symphonic Orchestra Bayerischer Rundfunk and the Bamberger Symphoniker at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. 

In this Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007, file photo, Pope Benedict XVI and his brother Georg, right, attend a concert by the Symphonic Orchestra Bayerischer Rundfunk and the Bamberger Symphoniker at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican.  (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

Benedict’s lack of a personal apology or admission of guilt immediately riled abuse survivors, who said his response reflected the Catholic hierarchy’s “permanent” refusal to accept responsibility for the rape and sodomy of children by priests. 

Benedict, 94, was responding to a Jan. 20 report from a German law firm that had been commissioned by the German Catholic Church to look into how cases of sexual abuse were handled in the Munich archdiocese between 1945 and 2019. Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982. 

The Vatican didn’t immediately return a request for comment for this story. 

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