ASUNCION, Paraguay – A Roman Catholic bishop alleged Tuesday that Paraguay's president resigned from his church leadership position in 2004 after at least two women in his parish wrote to a Vatican official that he had fathered their children.
Fernando Lugo, who was elected president last year, was hit with two paternity claims this month. He conceded last week that he is the father of one of the children. Bishop Rogelio Livieres alleged Tuesday that when confronted with the women's complaints in 2004, Lugo said it was "possible" that their children were his as well.
Livieres said the church was aware of possible abuse of authority by Lugo, but allowed him to resign without making the complaints public, thus facilitating his bid for the presidency.
"The church hierarchy knew for years of this misconduct by Lugo, but kept silent. Now there's nothing that it can do," Livieres said in an interview with Asuncion-based Radio Mil.
The Paraguayan bishops' conference wrote in a statement that it had never received "formal written complaints" from women about Lugo, and that it "laments and rejects" the claim that the church in Paraguay covered up immoral conduct.
Livieres' phones rang busy during repeated attempts by The Associated Press.
Livieres told the radio station that Lugo was called to explain himself to the church hierarchy after Monsignor Antonio Lucibello, the Vatican's top representative in Paraguay at the time, received the women's written complaints. Livieres didn't say how many women allegedly complained.
"Lugo responded: 'Well, it could be, it's possible. I don't deny the complaints,"' Livieres alleged. "When they insisted he clarify his comments, he decided to resign instead."
"The church has the names of these women, but obviously won't publish them," Livieres added, saying that none of the complaints in 2004 were from Viviana Carrillo, whose 2-year-old child Lugo acknowledged as his own last week after she threatened to sue.
Another woman came forward with similar allegations this week, and if Livieres' statement proves true, still more could emerge with paternity claims against the president.
Livieres said the case was presented at an assembly of the Paraguayan bishops' conference but that "there was a great silence."
"Many knew about Lugo's misbehavior. The whole world knew it. Many sectors are aware of the facts," he said. "The church failed when it did not speak more clearly. It's a cover-up of sorts."
Lugo's resignation in 2004 as bishop of San Pedro, one of the landlocked nation's poorest provinces, was never fully explained. It wasn't until December 2006 that he renounced his bishop status to run for president, and Pope Benedict XVI didn't accept his resignation, relieving him of chastity vows, until weeks before he took office in August 2008.
Lugo, 57, appealed for privacy and referred all questions about paternity complaints to his lawyer on Tuesday after reading a brief statement promising to "act always in line with the truth and subject myself to all the requirements presented by the justice system."
Lugo's attorney, Marcos Farina, was busy Tuesday trying to negotiate with Begnina Leguizamon, an impoverished soap-seller who accused Lugo this week of fathering her 6-year-old boy. The woman emerged angry from those meetings, saying she refused to agree to DNA tests by a private laboratory the president's lawyer had suggested.
"I'm afraid that they could manipulate or falsify the result," she said. "Therefore, I'm asking the media to be witnesses to my public paternity demand — nothing in private."
Many Paraguayans said the paternity scandal has been a black eye for both the government and the Catholic Church, to which 90 percent of Paraguayans belong.
"He competed in the elections a year ago as an honest person but it turns out he's a fake because while he was a bishop he had a romantic relationship and a child," said Opposition Sen. Lilian Samaniego.
Yet Lugo's admission could, oddly enough, actually aid his presidential image in Paraguay, a country which, in addition to being overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, is also "a patriarchal, profoundly macho society," political analyst Alfredo Boccia said.
"Lugo has given proof of his virility and that is an inherent attribute ... that a part of the population expects from its leader," Boccia said.
After the first paternity claim, Catholic officials in Paraguay asked church members for forgiveness for the "sins of ministers and faithful." Some Paraguayans called for Lugo's excommunication, but the church said it cannot punish the president because he is now a layman.