Bolivian police raid bishop’s house after money laundering allegation

Crux [Denver CO]

April 23, 2024

By Eduardo Campos Lima

SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A German-born bishop emeritus in Bolivia had his house raided on Apr. 19 by prosecutors and police officers.

He is accused of a scheme to legitimatize illicit earnings in the department of Santa Cruz.

Agents of the anti-corruption unit of the prosecutor’s office raided Bishop Karl Stetter’s house and the office of lawyer Juan Miguel Zarzar, one of the attorneys of the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco. During the operation, the agents took several documents, a sum of money, and a vehicle.

A couple of months ago, Stetter’s finances came to the attention of prosecutor Gustavo Ríos, who said that one of the suspects in the alleged scheme owns 15 properties and 10 cars.

Ríos told the Bolivian newspaper El Deber that he identified financial fluxes that are not compatible with a bishop’s earnings, and that he and lawyer Zarzar will have to explain the origin of 100 properties.

Stetter told El Deber that he considers the operation to be unfair and abusive, but he said he will cooperate with the inquiry.

Born in Germany in 1941, Stetter was ordained a bishop in Bolivia in 1987 and became head of the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco in 1995. He gained a reputation as a social-oriented bishop for his work with Indigenous communities and with institutions of education and health care. He also built several churches and chapels.

The diocese published on the same day a harsh statement saying the raid was “an abusive act against a pastor of the Catholic Church who gave his life to serve the people.”

The declaration said that Gustavo Ríos only showed “his ignorance and prejudice” against Church life when he said that the bishop’s finances were not compatible with his activity. All the investments and possessions kept by Stetter, the document added, are directed to the social works he keeps in the Diocese.

The Bolivian Episcopal Conference (CEB) also reacted on the same day and released a statement in which it declared its “closeness to his person.”

“We have never doubted that his behavior concerning the administrative acts in the Diocese have always been carried out with full transparency and honesty,” the declaration issued by CEB’s general secretariat read.

The bishops demanded the investigations of the case to be “carried out within the framework of due respect for the laws and judicial processes and under ethical criteria of truth and transparency.”

On Apr. 21, during Mass, Bishop Aurelio Pesoa of Beni, who heads the CEB, declared that the accusation of money laundering against Stetter “borders on abuse of power” and that he hoped that “it’s not an act of intimidation of the pastors of the Bolivian Church.”

“As pastors of the Church in Bolivia we cannot and will not be cornered in the sacristy,” Pesoa added.

Bishop Giovani Arana of El Alto, CEB’s secretary general, told Crux that according to the Diocese, Stetter lives an austere life. He said that many dioceses in Bolivia and abroad, including his own, also have many properties.

“But dioceses don’t have a mercantile nature. They own goods and properties to serve the people,” Arana said.

He said that most Bolivian citizens consider that justice is not impartial and doesn’t act with equanimity, being something distant from the people in general.

“We hope that’s not a direct attack on the Church. We believe more information will come to light and that there has been a mistake in the prosecutors’ behavior,” Arana said.

The inquiry is the most recent among several clashes between the Church and the Bolivian government that occurred over the past few years.

The relationship between former President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo party (Movement for Socialism) and the Church has been tense since he first took office in 2006. Although he had good personal relations with some clergy members and Catholic movements, he and the episcopate had a number of disagreements over the years over policies and legislation.

In 2019, when a serious political crisis led Morales to resign and the government was assumed by the opposition, the Church was seen by many MAS members as lending support to what they defined as a coup. Since then, the animosity has continually grown.

According to lay theologian Miguel Miranda, however, the inquiry against Stetter is probably motivated by local circumstances, and it’s not reasonable to think that it can be part of a strategy of the government to attack the Bolivian Church.

Miranda said that although MAS was able to regain power with the election of President Luis Arce in 2020, it has deep internal divisions now between him and Morales, and the two blocs (the supporters of Arce and the supporters of Morales) have been using mechanisms of juridical persecution against each other.

“Their targets are defined after a very meticulous study. The Church is not among their major targets,” he told Crux.

Miranda said that there are Catholics who are MAS militants, so the Church is too heterogeneous an institution to be singled out by the party as an enemy.

“They use their power over judges and prosecutors against specific objects. But the Church’s social base is huge, they would only corrode themselves if they tried to confront it,” he said.

The government has taken advantage of the public scandal generated by the denouncement of late Jesuit Father Alfonso Pedrajas, whose diary, given last year to a journalist of the Spanish newspaper El Pais, contained the confession of numerous cases of child abuse perpetrated by him over decades.

The report sparked a wave of controversy in the Andean country and led to other accusations against Jesuit priests.

“Some actors connected to the government embarked in a crusade against the Church,” Miranda said. But he doesn’t think that a systematic persecution against the Church is possible.

“It may be, however, some kind of example to others,” he said.