Roman Catholics in Puerto Rico rallied Wednesday around an archbishop who is apparently under pressure from the Vatican to resign for allegedly covering up for sexually abusive priests and other misdeeds.
Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves has not confirmed that he is being asked to step down as leader of the Catholic Church in the U.S. island territory. However, he has asked parishioners to pray for him.
"I beg of you, please, do not send letters to the Holy See with expressions of solidarity. There is only one thing to do in situations like these: Pray," he wrote in a May 3 letter that was read to churchgoers last Sunday. "I know the last two weeks have been intense and painful for all of us for reasons you already know."
A rally of support Wednesday evening coincided with Gonzalez's 14th anniversary at the Puerto Rican archdiocese. He had previously studied and worked in New York, Texas, Maryland and Massachusetts. The 62-year-old was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico at a young age.
Maria Flores, a church member from the San Juan suburb of Bayamon, dismissed the allegations against Gonzalez as unproven.
"It's taught that we should have compassion for sinners," said Flores, one of about 200 supporters who gathered at Santa Teresita church in San Juan. "Jesus forgave."
Gonzalez reached out to supporters after local radio station Noti Uno recently published a letter that he allegedly wrote to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican's powerful office for bishops. In the six-page letter dated Feb. 20, Gonzalez defends himself against accusations including that he protected priests accused of sexual abuse and meddled in local politics.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday the Holy See had no comment on the letter, the publication of which he called an "indiscretion."
The matter is significant because the Vatican has long been criticized by victims of sexually abusive priests for having failed to punish bishops who covered up for their abusive priests, moving them from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police. If indeed the Vatican is trying to persuade Gonzalez to resign for having done just that, it would mark a significant development.
Even more significant would be if the Vatican were to forcibly remove him if he continues to resist resigning on his own.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI on a handful of occasions forcibly removed bishops who resisted the Vatican's persuasions that they retire early. But none were believed to have been removed for having covered up for abusive priests.
At 62, Gonzalez is 13 years below the normal retirement age for bishops.
Gonzalez issued a brief statement following Noti Uno's report.
"Any communication or alleged communication between this servant and the Holy See that involves an internal and confidential matter, I'll only deal with the Holy See on it," he said. "I also invite you to pray, so the truth that can set us free be known in this matter."
In the Feb. 20 letter, Gonzalez allegedly wrote that he would not step down and that he was profoundly offended and hurt by the gravity of the accusations, requesting evidence to back them up. He noted that the accusations were made verbally during a Dec. 15 meeting with Monsignor Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops.
"It caused me great dismay, first, because they were false and distorted, and second, because it seemed that my guilt was prejudged," he said. "In fact, it's not clear if these accusations are final and if so, what investigation prompted them."
Gonzalez stated that in October 2011 he was the target of an apostolic visitation, a Vatican-mandated investigation that is still ongoing. Gonzalez did not explain the reason behind the visit, except to say he was temporarily prohibited from making religious appointments, and that he was warned he might not be notified about possible future visits.
Such apostolic visitations occur worldwide with some frequency for issues ranging from alleged sex abuse to financial irregularities.
Supporters of Gonzalez, including several nonprofit religious organizations on the island, say he is the target of a political campaign to oust him.
"We condemn the evil leak of confidential information, and even more, the anonymity that his accusers have maintained," said officials with the Puerto Rican Catholic Alliance for Life and Homeland.
Eduardo Rivero, president of Radio Isla, a local news station, condemned those who have rushed to judge Gonzalez. He also accused other local media of unfairly attacking him.
"I'm well aware of the risks of commenting on a religious matter as president of this medium," he said in a statement. "But ... I cannot remain silent ...You can be sure Radio Isla will always be on the side of those who are good for Puerto Rico."
Gonzalez noted that he was asked not to talk about the situation, but that he has reached out to several bishops and cardinals he considers friends so he can defend himself. He wrote that one of them is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, where Gonzalez worked for 12 years before eventually moving to Puerto Rico.
He said he had also discussed the matter with three other U.S. cardinals, among them Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston in 2002 when the clerical sex abuse scandal exploded in the U.S. Rather than being punished for covering up for the pedophiles on his staff, however, Law was given the plum job as archpriest of one of the Vatican's major basilicas in Rome.
Gonzalez said he also was told that after resigning, he should seek another position within the church.
"Given that the accusations are so serious, that if they were true, how is it possible for me to occupy another position?" he wrote.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.