SANTIAGO – All of Chile’s 34 Roman Catholic bishops announced their resignation Friday in the wake of a child sex scandal and cover-up in Chile.
“We, all the bishops present in Rome, have tendered our resignation to the Holy Father so that he may decide freely for each of us,” the bishops said in a statement after three days of intense meetings with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
“We want to ask forgiveness for the pain caused to the victims, to the Pope, to God’s people and to our country for the grave errors and omissions we have committed,” the statement continued.
In announcing their willingness to resign, the Chilean bishops said that they had offered freely to step down and had left their future status “in the hands of the Holy Father,” allowing the Pope to decide which bishops should be removed. The bishops thanked the Pope for his “fraternal correction” and offered their apologies to the victims of sexual abuse.
It was not immediately clear whether the pope had accepted all or any of the resignations.
The unprecedented mass resignation follows a series of events that caused mounting tensions within the Church in Chile: the 2011 conviction of Father Fernando Karadima, a highly influential priest, on abuse charges; the Pope’s 2015 decision to promote Bishop Juan Barros, a prelate with close ties to Karadima; and the Pope’s own public statements that criticism of Bishop Barros was based only on “unfounded allegations of leftists.”
The controversy reached a peak in January, when the Pontiff visited Chile, and responded to questions by saying that he had never received evidence of wrongdoing or negligence by Bishop Barros. That public statement by the Pope was called into question when one of Karadima’s victims revealed that he had sent a letter to Pope Francis, explaining the bishop’s negligence; the letter was reportedly hand-delivered by Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
In answer to increasingly urgent questions, Pope Francis commissioned Archbishop Charles Scicluna, formerly the Vatican’s top sex-abuse prosecutor, to investigate the situation in Chile. After receiving a lengthy report from Archbishop Scicluna, the Pope issued an emotional apology for his handling of the matter, acknowledging “serious mistakes.” He then arranged personal meetings with some Chilean sex-abuse victims, and summoned the Chilean bishops to Rome for a thorough discussion.
In a letter made public at the conclusion of this week’s three-day meeting, the Pope urged them to return home with a new commitment to build a “prophetic Church, capable of putting at the center what’s important: the service to her Lord in the hungry, the imprisoned, the migrant, the abused.”
But in a confidential 10-page document leaked Friday by Chilean TV channel T13, the Argentine pope used much stronger language to denounce the “absolutely reprehensible things that have happened in the Chilean Church,” citing not only sexual abuse but “unacceptable abuses of power” and a loss of “prophetic vigor.”
The damning letter also outlines findings of an investigation, ordered by Pope Francis, into the abuse allegations.
In this longer letter the Pope revealed that Archbishop Scicluna’s report had uncovered clear evidence of “grave negligence” among the Chilean bishops, as well as evidence that some bishops had covered up abuse and put pressure on Church officials to do the same.
“No one can exempt himself and place the problem on the shoulders of the others,” the Pope wrote. “We need a change,” he said. While acknowledging that the removal of some bishops would be a positive step, he wrote: “I insist, it’s not enough.”
The dramatic resignation by the entire Chilean hierarchy leaves Pope Francis in a position to write his own conclusion to the story. The most urgent question, clearly, is which resignations the Holy Father will choose to accept, and which Chilean bishops will be allowed to continue in ministry.
The mass resignation of an entire delegation of bishops is almost unheard of, having last happened two centuries ago.
Bishops have, however, previously been summoned to the Vatican over abuse scandals.
In April 2002, Pope John Paul II summoned 13 American cardinals and bishops to Rome after a huge paedophilia scandal within the clergy. Following another abuse scandal in Ireland in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI also organised a meeting of Irish prelates at the Vatican in February 2010.