Mass resignation of Chile's bishops follows crisis talks with Pope Francis
By Nicole Trian
May 18, 2018
|Pope Francis during a visit to Chile.|
The Catholic Church is facing a widening crisis over claims of child sex abuse and cover-ups that triggered the unprecedented resignation of all 34 of Chile’s bishops on Friday after the pope accused them of “grave negligence”.
The decision to resign followed four days of emergency talks with Pope Francis in which the pontiff accused bishops of failing to investigate abuse allegations amid claims that evidence of sex crimes had been destroyed. It is the first time all of the most senior clerics of a country have volunteered to stand down over sex abuse claims. They asked forgiveness from the victims, the pope and all Catholics for their "grave errors and omissions" while vowing to repair the damage.
One of the resigning bishops, Alejandro Goic, apologised again Saturday for failing to respond to reports of cases of sexual abuse in his diocese, including one involving a priest who sent naked pictures of himself to a false Facebook profile in a sting operation.
While many of the Chilean victims of abuse welcomed the news, they have called for the Vatican to pursue further action.
"There are very good people within the Chilean Church who could take over the reins and repair the damage done by these corrupt bishops," said Juan Carlos Cruz one of the abuse victims, in an interview with Reuters.
Eneas Espinoza, a Chilean man who claims to have been abused while at a school run by the Marist brothers, called on the pope to pursue a canonical prosecution that could see them stripped of all titles and benefits.
"We want concrete, real action," he told Reuters. "I don't want my abuser to end up living in a plush retirement home."
US-based NGO Bishop Accountability says almost 80 members of the Catholic clergy have been accused of child sex abuse in Chile since 2000.
Sentenced to ‘penance and prayer’
Their decision to resign relates to one of the country’s most pernicious, and most public, cases of child sexual abuse involving dozens of allegations against a senior priest, Father Fernando Karadima. Another priest, Juan Barros, who became a bishop long after the Vatican learned of the abuses, stands accused of covering up the scandal.
Father Karadima, who was a mentor to Barros, was found guilty in a 2011 Vatican investigation of abusing boys in Santiago in the 1970s and 1980s. He was sentenced to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” but he avoided criminal prosecution because a judge ruled that too much time had elapsed between when the abuses allegedly took place and when the victims’ testimonies came to light.
The judge who dismissed the case against Karadima, however, described the testimony of the victims as "truthful and reliable".
Now 87 and living in a nursing home in Chile, he has always denied any wrongdoing.
Cruz, who is one of Bishop Barros’s accusers, said the bishop was present when Father Karadima abused him and another boy. Like other victims, he has accused Barros of doing nothing to stop the abuse. Barros was among the 34 bishops who resigned on Friday.
The Vatican’s position has consistently been to support Barros, who in 2015 was appointed a bishop by Pope Francis despite opposition from numerous members of Chile’s clergy. The decision sparked protests outside the church where Barros was officially ordained.
In March 2015, Cruz wrote a letter to the Vatican, appealing directly to the pope on behalf of those abused.
"Please Holy Father, don't be like the others. There are so many of us who despite everything think that you can do something. I treasure my faith, it's what sustains me, but it is slipping away from me."
Pressure for the Vatican to intervene began four months ago when accusations against Barros and Karadima re-emerged during a papal visit to Chile. Pope Francis angered victims when he told journalists there was “not one single piece of proof” that Bishop Barros had covered up for Karadima, referring to the accusations as “slander”.
The pope later apologised, admitting he misjudged the situation in Chile.
He proceeded to task the Vatican with conducting a formal investigation into the allegations led by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta. In April, after receiving Scicluna's findings, he sent a strong letter to Chilean bishops speaking of his "pain and shame" and of his own "serious mistakes" in dealing with the scandal.
“I fell into serious errors in the evaluation and perception of the situation, due especially to the lack of true and balanced information,” he wrote.
A lengthy report based on those findings was leaked to the media this week along with the pope's mea culpa.
The report also exposed the Vatican’s missteps in handling Barros.
The pope laid blame squarely on church leaders in Chile, whom he accused of abrogating their responsibilities, saying they had been afraid to face “the ramifications of evil".
The scandal engulfing the Chilean clergy is likely just the beginning of exposing divisions at the highest levels of the Catholic Church over the handling of priest abuse spanning decades and countries. The Vatican has, however, recently made moves to repair the decades of distrust born from the church’s inaction on abuse. It is now desperate to be seen as finally facing the issue head-on.
In Australia, the third-highest member of the Vatican hierarchy, Archbishop George Cardinal Pell, was ordered in May to stand trial on "multiple" sex charges, which he denies. His case coincided with an Australian public inquiry, which took more than five years and is widely considered the most rigorous investigation into the Church to date. It found that 7 percent of priests who worked in Australia from 1950 to 2010 were accused of sexually abusing children.
It remains unclear, however, whether Pope Francis will accept the resignations of the 34 bishops or whether they will return to their dioceses, free to continue conducting church business as usual.