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ARECIBO, Puerto Rico (LifeSiteNews) – Priests in the Puerto Rican Diocese of Arecibo say they were told that liberal Cardinal Blase Cupich made a secretive visit to their diocese last year and was involved in the recent dismissal of Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres.

According to an investigation by Catholic news site ACI Prensa, the current apostolic administrator of the diocese informed clerics that Cupich, the scandal-plagued archbishop of Chicago, conducted something of a secret, unofficial apostolic visit to Arecibo last fall, Catholic News Agency reported.

In a meeting days after Bishop Fernández Torres’ removal last month, the apostolic administrator, Bishop Emeritus Álvaro Corrada del Río, S.J., of Mayagüez, said that the Vatican had “secretly” dispatched Cupich to investigate the bishop, who is known for defending Catholic teaching and conscience objections to COVID jabs.

Four priests of the Diocese of Arecibo told ACI Prensa of the incident on condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation.

One priest interviewed by ACI Prensa said that Bishop Corrada del Río told them: “Cardinal Cupich came, and he came as a person who was going to make his report, he made his report and was here for a few days.” Another priest described the Chicago prelate as “a spy.”

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In a statement to ACI Prensa, Corrada del Río appeared to walk back his assessment, saying, “I only know that Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, visited the Diocese of Arecibo. My guess is wrong.”

Cupich visited Puerto Rico in late October ostensibly to tour hurricane damage with U.S.-based charity Catholic Extension. The cardinal reportedly had a meal with Bishop Fernández Torres while in Arecibo, and there is speculation that Pope Francis’ decision to remove the bishop was influenced by that meeting, The Pillar reported.

The Vatican first asked for Bishop Fernández Torres’ resignation on October 1, a few weeks before his meeting with Cupich later that month.

Bishop Fernández Torres refused to resign, however, and Pope Francis eventually “relieved” him of control of the Diocese of Arecibo in March, though without bringing formal charges against him or offering an explanation for the move, which has drawn widespread criticism and sparked multiple protests.

Bishop Fernández Torres said in a statement to ACI Prensa that he was never informed of an apostolic visitation to his diocese.

“I was never informed nor did I have knowledge of any apostolic visitation to the diocese of Arecibo or related to this servant, nor did Cardinal Cupich indicate anything about it,” he said. “This statement covers not only the recent period but the entire time of my service to the diocese of Arecibo as bishop.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to the news agency’s requests for comment.

COVID jab wars

Bishop Fernández Torres announced in a statement last month that his dismissal centered around allegations of disobedience to the pope and lack of “sufficient communion” with fellow Puerto Rican bishops. “No process has been made against me,” he wrote, “nor have I been formally accused of anything, and simply one day the apostolic delegate verbally communicated to me that Rome was asking me to resign.”

He had notably declined to join a letter issued in August by the episcopal conference of Puerto Rico announcing a COVID shot mandate for priests and employees and segregation at Mass based on jab status. Echoing the pope, the letter claimed that “there is a duty to be vaccinated.”

Archbishop Ghaleb Moussa Abdalla Bader, the apostolic delegate for Puerto Rico, requested Bishop Fernández Torres’s resignation after he refused to sign the letter, ACI Prensa reported.

The Arecibo bishop had released a separate statement stressing that Catholics can indeed reject the shots in good conscience and permitting priests in his diocese to sign religious exemptions.

Bishop Fernández Torres’s letter reflected positions of numerous other prelates and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal note on COVID jabs, which stresses that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

But his defense of conscience rights still led to his deposition, according to ACI Prensa, as did his initial reluctance to send seminarians to an interdiocesan seminary in Puerto Rico approved by the Vatican.

Archbishop Roberto Octavio González Nieves of San Juan has said that Bishop Fernández Torres was removed “solely” due to alleged “insubordination to the Pope.” According to The Pillar, sources close to the bishop have said that “there was no obvious reason for intervention, no notable local scandal, and no indications of malfeasance.”

Cardinal Cupich, a close ally of Pope Francis, has aggressively pushed the COVID-19 jabs and in August strictly mandated them for all priests and employees in his archdiocese. He also reportedly heavily pressured the National Catholic Bioethics Center to revise its statement about the shots, which supports the right to refuse the experimental injections and expresses concern about their long-term safety.

Cupich is well-known for his left-wing politics and vocal support of the LGBT movement. He permits “LGBT Masses” and has publicly endorsed allowing unrepentant homosexuals to receive Communion and funeral rites, going so far as to declare that a priest may not deny the Eucharist to anyone in a state of homosexual sin.

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He has made similar comments about divorced and remarried Catholics and pro-abortion lawmakers and has also suggested that “racism” is a moral evil comparable to abortion.

Pope Francis appointed Cupich the archbishop of Chicago in 2014, before elevating him to the cardinalate two years later, even amid criticism over his handling of clerical sex abuse cases. The pope additionally named Cupich to the Congregation for Bishops in 2016.