All 33 Roman Catholic bishops in Chile offered to resign Friday after meeting with Pope Francis in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Latin American country.
The unprecedented offer by the Chilean church’s top hierarchy came after a week of tense meetings with Francis in the Vatican to discuss the harsh conclusions of a report on the Chilean scandal prepared by Malta Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna that accused church leaders of a coverup.
“We want to announce that all bishops present in Rome, in writing, have placed our positions in the Holy Father’s hands so that he may freely decide regarding each one of us,” Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez said in a news conference Friday in Rome.
It was unclear whether Francis would accept any or all of the resignations. Thirty-one of the 33 bishops attended the Vatican meetings, and the two who did not attend added their names to the resignation letter.
“I assume with responsibility, in communion with the rest of the church, this need to support the Holy Father,” Bishop Carlos Pellegrin said after arriving Friday at the Santiago airport.
After visiting Chile in February to investigate the alleged abuses of an unspecified number of victims that included minors and adults, laymen and clerics, Scicluna filed a report that slammed a coverup by church leaders of sex crimes committed by Father Fernando Karadima during his tenure at a parish in Santiago, the capital.
The report blamed, among others, Karadima’s superior Bishop Juan Barros, who attended the Vatican meetings. Karadima, now 87, was condemned by a special canonical court to a lifetime of penance and prayer, but he faced no criminal charges because of the statute of limitations.
In his five years as pontiff, Francis has been praised for his attention to social issues and the poor but accused of failing to punish clergy who abused children. Such criticisms intensified during the pope’s visit to Chile in January, when he labeled the accusations against Barros as “calumny.”
The pope’s words were widely criticized, even by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a key Vatican advisor on clergy abuse.
Francis later apologized and asked Scicluna to investigate the matter. The pontiff also had emotionally charged meetings with three men who said they were abused by Karadima. Those meetings prompted him to write a letter to the Chilean bishops last month, saying that he felt "pain and shame" over the men's accounts and that he wanted to "apologize to all those I have offended."
One of the men who met with the pope, Juan Carlos Cruz, described their discussions as “raw.” Cruz said he had “never seen someone so contrite. He was truly sorry, and I felt he was hurting.”
The night before the Chilean bishops sent Francis their offer of resignation, he sent them a letter. According to the Vatican news service, it referenced his meetings with the bishops and said, in part: “In light of these painful incidents which concern abuse — of minors, power, and conscience — we exchanged views on their seriousness as well as on their tragic consequences, particularly for the victims. For each of them I have wholeheartedly asked for forgiveness, an action to which all of you have united in one will and with the firm intention of repairing the damage done.”
Scicluna’s 2,300-page report enumerated “a series of absolutely reprehensible acts that have occurred in the Chilean church in relation to those unacceptable abuses of power, of conscience and sexual abuse that have resulted in the lessening of the prophetic vigor," Auxiliary Bishop Fernando Ramos of Santiago said at the Friday news conference.
Karadima served as spiritual guide to more than 40 priests and four of the current bishops whose future is now at stake — Barros, Horacio Valenzuela, Tomislav Koljatic and Andrés Arteaga. They all have denied covering up abuses. Barros was perhaps closest to Karadima, having been trained by him as a junior priest
"The fame of Father Karadima was extraordinary at that time; he even had a reputation of being a saint,” Emeritus Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz testified at a civil court hearing in 2015, explaining why he didn’t believe the accusations against Karadima in the early 2000s.
Triggering the crisis was Francis’ appointment of Barros in 2015 as head of the Osorno Diocese in Southern Chile. Up to then, Barros had a low profile as Chilean armed forces bishop, but his alleged role in the Karadima coverup was widely known by then and many parishioners protested the appointment.
On Friday in Santiago, another of the whistleblowers who exposed Karadima said Francis needed to get rid of the bishops.
“I hope the pope accepts the resignation of all the bishops, because none of them was willing to side with the victims," Jose Andres Murillo said at a news conference. "The church must transform itself from a refuge of abusers to a refuge for the victims."