A Catholic bishop, five priests and other administrative officials in the Brazilian state of Goiás have been arrested on accusations of embezzling more than two million reales (about $600,000) from the Catholic Church.
Bishop José Ronaldo of the Diocese of Formosa was among those arrested March 19, as part of operation “Caiaphas.” Among other findings, the operation discovered 70,000 reales (about $21,000) in cash in a cabinet with a false bottom. The cabinet belonged to Fr. Epitácio Cardoso Pereira, in the Planaltina township.
In wake of these developments, Pope Francis on March 21 appointed the Archbishop of Uberaba, Paulo Mendes Peixoto, as apostolic administrator of the diocese.
According to prosecutors, the embezzled money comes from tithes, donations, stipends for baptisms and weddings from churches. Authorities said the diversion of money has been going on since 2015 when the bishop took possession of the Diocese of Formosa.
Judge Fernando Oliveira Samuel said that the money “was systematically diverted by order of José Ronaldo and also approved by the rest of the clerics.”
According to authorities, legal wiretaps suggested that Bishop Ronaldo and four other priests purchased a ranch to raise livestock and a store where lottery tickets are sold.
“In addition to that, it is possible that the vehicles acquired by the diocese were intended for Fr. Moacyr Santana’s personal use in the city of Posse,” the judge added.
The public prosecutor in charge of the case, Douglas Chegury, said that similar irregularities occurred when Bishop Ronaldo was in the Diocese of Janauba.
Authorities began investigating the current case in December 2017 when members of the faithful complained that monthly expenses for the bishop’s residence had gone from 5,000 reales ($1,520) to 35,000 reales ($10,600) since Bishop Ronaldo assumed the diocese.
Consequently, the local faithful requested an open disclosure of the diocesan accounts. When the bishop refused, they said they would boycott church collections until the measure was taken.
Bishop Ronaldo claimed at the time that there were "no improprieties" and that he did not take any of the money collected.
ACI Digital, the Portuguese language sister agency of CNA, repeatedly sought the reaction of the Diocese of Formosa but did not receive a response by press time.
The Secretary General of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, issued a press release March 20 stating that “In face of the jailing of the bishop of the Diocese of Formosa in Goiás State, the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference expresses its solidarity with the clergy and faithful of the diocese, reminding the brother bishop that justice is to abandon oneself, trusting in the merciful will of God.”
“The truth of the facts must be established with justice and transparency, considering the good of the particular church and the bishop,” the conference said.
The bishops of Brazil asked ”all the faithful of the Church to remain united in prayer to be true witnesses to the Gospel.”