Vatican Awaits Developments as It Investigates Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga and Honduras’ Catholic University

Questions have been raised about the attempt to transfer ownership of the university from the local Church to a foundation headed by the rector, ahead of the cardinal’s impending retirement.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga celebrates Mass at Suayapa Cathedral June 11, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga celebrates Mass at Suayapa Cathedral June 11, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (photo: Jorge Salvador Cabrera / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — A Vatican investigation into one of Pope Francis’ closest aides and the rector of the Catholic University of Honduras over alleged mismanagement of the university’s finances and personnel has currently stalled as the Vatican awaits more information, the Register has learned. 

The Pope ordered the investigation last year after repeated complaints were made against Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa and the rector, Deacon Elio Alvarenga Amador, following their attempt to remove the Church’s ownership of the Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic University of Honduras, and turn it into an independently run non-governmental organization.

The canonical investigation, led by Msgr. Guy-Réal Thivierge, a French-Canadian consultant at the Dicastery for Catholic Education, took place May 29-June 5, 2021.

During that time, Msgr. Thivierge questioned a variety of people in Honduras connected with the university, including the cardinal and rector, in order to learn more about the situation first-hand. As a frequent visitor to Honduras when he served as executive secretary of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, Msgr. Thivierge was deemed an appropriate official to lead the canonical inquiry. 

But officials say the investigation has subsequently stalled and that as of Nov. 30 the Vatican had not been able to reach both Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga and Deacon Alvarenga. The cardinal has subsequently arrived in Rome on Dec. 1 for a two-week stay. 

The Register emailed the cardinal to ask if he would respond to the allegations against him of mismanagement and corruption but he had not responded by press time. 

According to the Spanish Catholic website InfoVaticana, which was the first to reveal the Vatican investigation in May, the university dismissed many long-serving staff beginning in early 2021 to prepare for the ownership transfer, without any warning or prior investigation and with the cardinal’s permission. 

A screenshot of the Honduran Ministry of the Interior and Justice’s website which legalized the statutes of the new university foundation.
A screenshot of the Honduran Ministry of the Interior and Justice’s website which legalized the statutes of the new university foundation.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

The Register has learned that no explanation was given except for a Zoom call a few days earlier in which the staff were told the university was to immediately become a nongovernmental development organization. 

One of the alleged aims of the transfer of ownership, which one Vatican source pejoratively called a “revolution” of the university, is so that Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga can continue receiving significant amounts of income from the institution after he retires at the end of December when he turns 80. 


Foundation and Financial Questions

The Register has obtained a copy of the public deeds showing the transfer of ownership of the university from the archdiocese to a newly founded entity, the Fundación de la Universidad Católica de Honduras. 

A screenshot of the Honduran Ministry of the Interior and Justice’s website which legalized the statutes of the new university foundation." The second showing the names: "A copy of the public deeds of the newly established university foundation, Fundación de la Universidad Católica de Honduras." Photo credit: Honduran sourc
A copy of the public deeds of the newly established university foundation, Fundación de la Universidad Católica de Honduras.

Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga does not appear in the deeds because, as the current archbishop of Tegucigalpa and legal representative of the archdiocese, he acts merely as the grantor in the ownership transfer to the foundation. But the documents show the new entity’s president as Deacon Alvarenga, rector of the Catholic University of Honduras since its founding in 1993. Others on the board of the new foundation include Misael Arguijo Alvarenga and Lourdes Guadalupe Fortín Rivera, respectively Deacon Alvarenga’s first cousin and wife. 

A source told Infovaticana that the transfer process “was carried out under the most hermetic secrecy, in such a way that this valuable property of the Church was transferred to the hands of individuals without the people (parishioners) knowing it, and there was no obstacle that could jeopardize their malicious objectives, which is nothing more than illegally appropriating the assets of the Catholic Church.”

Suspicions of financial malpractice related to the university have circulated for years, and an earlier apostolic visitation of the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa in May 2017 found irregularities connected with the institution. 

According to Emiliano Fittipaldi, an investigative reporter for the Italian magazine L'Espresso who first reported on corruption in the archdiocese in 2017, the findings of that investigation brought to light irregular payments made by the Catholic University of Tegucigalpa. 

The visitation that year found that Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, who is the coordinator of the Pope’s council of cardinals advising him on Church reform, had received payments of almost one million lempiras per month ($40,000) — money he has always insisted has been used to pay fees for seminarians and to help fund the construction and repair of churches. 

Other informed sources in Honduras told the Register this week that the cardinal received around $500,000 a year from the university from 2004 to 2015 “without having to present any documentation to justify the destination of those funds.” 

“The cardinal was only asked for his personal signature on a receipt on bond-type paper, and that was all,” said the source. “Today this endowment must be greater than one million lempiras each month.”

Martha Alegria Reichmann, who has written a book called Sacred Betrayals alleging a web of financial and moral corruption in the archdiocese, told the Honduran publication ConfidencialHN on Nov. 23 that the university “have never presented financial reports to the archdiocese but have managed it at their own convenience, so much so that they removed a blameless official who managed the finances and replaced him with a brother of the cardinal — a very suspicious act that lends itself to hiding dirty data.” 

Reichmann contends that the cardinal and Alvarenga took the university out of the hands of its founders soon after its inception in 1993 and put it in the name of the archdiocese, but now they wish to put it in their own name. “Not content with stealing the golden eggs from the goose, they want to now steal the whole goose, but the Vatican caught them,” she said. 

The university became a substantive source of cash for the archdiocese after it began attracting many student admissions in the 2000s due to a growing economy and because the country’s state university, the National Autonomous University of Honduras, introduced a stricter admissions policy. This drove students to private universities such as the Catholic University of Honduras, resulting in “enormous flows of money,” as well as lower a quality of student, according to one former university employee. 


 Apostolic Visitation

The 2017 apostolic visitation, which called on more than 50 witnesses, had already thrown up extensive financial mismanagement in the archdiocese, and discovered staff and priests living lives of luxury, expensive cars, and first-class travel. It also led to the subsequent dismissal of one of Cardinal Rodriquez Maradiaga’s closest friends and assistants, Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle, who was an auxiliary of the diocese. Bishop Pineda was at the center of allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians and corruption.  

Asked if the Vatican would be imposing restrictions on the cardinal and Deacon Alvarenga at some point regarding their appropriation of the university, a Vatican source said, “It’s a delicate operation. We have to follow this very closely and we’re trying to obtain more information ­­— we don’t have any sure and specific information at this time.”

Pressed on whether the Vatican will allow the university to become a non-governmental development organization, the source said it was “very difficult to answer that question.” 

But the Vatican’s frustration with Cardinal Maradiaga, who for years has been linked to scandal, was tangible. Noting that the cardinal, and by implication not the Pope, had already prolonged his tenure as archbishop beyond the normal retiring age of 75, the source said: “Now it’s absolutely the end of it — the end of it. He will be finished as archbishop. It’s known he will submit his resignation just before turning 80 years old.” 

The cardinal’s birthday is on Dec. 29 and steps have already been taken to find a successor — a process which the Vatican source said has been “very difficult.”