Wednesday 24 April 2024

Bishops defend German-born prelate after police raid

Bolivia’s bishops are rallying to support a retired prelate after police raided his residence as part of a money laundering investigation.

In an April 19 statement, the Bolivian bishops’ conference’s general secretariat expressed its solidarity with Bishop Carlos Stetter, the 83-year-old former Bishop of San Ignacio de Velasco, a remote diocese in eastern Bolivia.

The German-born Stetter is the elder brother of Irme Stetter-Karp, the president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) and co-president of Germany’s controversial “synodal way.”

“At no time do we doubt that his actions in all administrative acts in the diocese have always been carried out in total transparency and honesty,” the Bolivian bishops’ general secretariat said.

“Moreover, as the Catholic Church, we ask that any investigation by the prosecutor’s office be carried out within the framework of due respect for the laws and judicial processes, and under ethical criteria of truth and transparency.”

The April 19 raid on Stetter’s home in the municipality of San Ignacio de Velasco is the latest in a series of law enforcement operations focused on the Church, following the outbreak of an abuse crisis in May 2023.

The scandal was sparked by the publication of extracts from the diary of the Spanish Jesuit priest Fr. Alfonso Pedrajas, who died in 2009. The diary indicated that he abused as many as 85 children while serving as a teacher in Bolivia.

In August 2023, Bolivia’s bishops’ conference deplored investigators’ “excesses” after a series of raids on the Jesuit order’s offices in the capital, La Paz.

According to Bolivian media reports, the raid on Stetter’s residence took place after judge Primo Flores Rodríguez issued a search warrant April 18.   

The raid was carried out April 19 by the prosecutor’s office, led by prosecutor Gustavo Adolfo Ríos Guaygua, and members of an anti-corruption unit, who seized a Toyota Hilux pickup truck and documents. 

The investigation is reportedly targeting Stetter, Juan Miguel Zarza Álvarez, an attorney of the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco, and the diocese itself.

The prosecutor Ríos said that the investigation began two months ago after suspicions were raised over the retired bishop’s ownership of properties and alleged cash flow of more than a million dollars.

The Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco described the raid in an April 19 statement as “an abusive act against a pastor of the Catholic Church who has given a life of service to the people.”

It said that Stetter used investments to finance activities such as the maintenance of transmission towers used by Catholic media, the construction of chapels, and charitable works.

“Bishop Carlos leads an austere personal life and at 83 years of age, with 57 years as a priest, 45 as a missionary, 36 as bishop, he is about to give his last breaths in favor of this people. Such abusive treatment is a real and gratuitous violence against his life,” it said.

“We demand the withdrawal of this unfounded accusation, and the immediate return of his property.”

“The protagonists of this case owe him an apology and the people owe Bishop Carlos Stetter a great deal of gratitude.”

The bishop has also received messages of support from other organizations in the diocese.

Bolivia’s El Deber newspaper quoted Stetter as saying that the raid was an abuse of power by police and the prosecutor’s office.

“They seized documents, it is an investigation for laundering of illicit profits, but I still don’t know why,” he said

Karl Stetter was born in Ellwangen, southern Germany, in 1941. He was ordained a priest in 1966. He served as a fidei donum priest in Guatemala, where he was known as “Padre Carlos,” from 1971 until his expulsion by the military government in 1978. He then began working in the hot lowlands of eastern Bolivia. 

After briefly returning to Germany, he was named in 1987 as an auxiliary bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Chiquitos, which became the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco in 1994.

The San Ignacio de Velasco diocese serves around 250,000 Catholics spread over an area of 76,000 square miles. Stetter reached the most far-flung parishes via a plane that he piloted himself.

In 1995, Stetter was named Bishop of San Ignacio de Velasco, serving in the post for 21 years, before his retirement in 2016, at the customary retirement age for diocesan bishops of 75. 

In a 2018 message to friends and supporters, he said: “I gave 29 years of my life as bishop of the diocese of San Ignacio: health, dangers as a pilot in the air and on the roads and paths of the country.”

He added: “A particular blessing for me and the diocese was the ordination of 26 young men to the priesthood. Most of the parishes are now looked after by Bolivian clergy.”