Victims of a sexual abuse scandal by clerics in Chile’s Roman Catholic Church applauded Pope Francis’ decision Monday to accept the resignations of three bishops — including a prelate at the epicenter of cascading allegations of sexual abuse, cover-ups and impunity.
Anti-abuse activists called the move the Vatican’s first concrete step in the South American country to purge a corrupt church hierarchy implicated in decades of sexual mistreatment and official stonewalling.
The sex abuse scandal is among the most challenging issues facing Francis, who has said he felt “pain and shame” about the church’s failure for decades to confront cases of abuse by priests that have come from across the globe.
“This is huge not only for the Chilean church but for the entire world,” Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean abuse survivor who helped lead a campaign pressuring the Vatican to take action, said in a phone interview, echoing public comments from other victims and church-reform advocates. “The culture of abuse will never be tolerated again.”
Many Catholics expect additional disciplinary decisions by Francis — a native of Argentina and the first pope from the Americas — in an effort to restore parishioners’ diminished trust in the church.
"The pope himself pointed out that it was necessary to take short, medium and long-term measures in our church," Jaime Coiro, spokesman for the Chilean Episcopal Conference, told a television station Monday. "There is no way to rule out new measures."
All of Chile’s 33 active bishops offered their resignations last month in an extraordinary act as part of the fallout from the scandal. But the pope had not responded officially to the offer until Monday, when he accepted the resignation of the three prelates.
The highest-profile of those leaving his post was Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, 61, who has been in the vortex of the abuse saga.
In 2015, Francis appointed Barros as bishop of the diocese of Osorno in southern Chile, despite fierce objections from abuse survivors and others who accused Barros of ignoring reports of alleged sexual misconduct by Father Fernando Karadima.
Karadima, a charismatic cleric who was a mentor for Barros and other priests, was sentenced by the church in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer for the sex crimes he is accused of. Now 87, Karadima was never prosecuted criminally. Karadima, like Barros, has denied any wrongdoing.
Barros struck a contrite tone in a statement issued Monday.
“I humbly ask you to forgive my limitations and what I could not achieve,” Barros said. “Our lives are in the hands of God, who knows our consciences and actions in this complex time.”
Victims accused Barros of knowing about what they said was Karadima’s abusive behavior but doing nothing to stop it or report it to church authorities. Barros had served as bishop of the Chilean armed forces before Francis appointed him to the Osorno post. He had been named a bishop by John Paul II in 1995.
Francis angered anti-abuse activists and others in Chile when, during a trip to the South American nation in January, he told an interviewer that the accusations against Barros lacked evidence and amounted to “calumnies.” His comments stunned many Catholics in Chile and elsewhere.
The pope’s defense of Barros led to a widely publicized damage-control statement from Boston Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, a key Vatican advisor on clergy abuse, who acknowledged that Francis’ comments about Barros were “a source of great pain” for victims.
After that episode, Francis appointed Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta to investigate the allegations of abuse in the Chilean church.
Scicluna visited Chile in February and prepared a 2,300-page report enumerating “a series of absolutely reprehensible acts that have occurred in the Chilean church in relation to … unacceptable abuses of power, of conscience and sexual abuse," Auxiliary Bishop Fernando Ramos of Santiago said on May 18, when the 33 Chilean bishops offered their resignation en masse to Francis.
In April, Francis apologized for the "serious mistakes" in assessing the Chilean crisis. That same month he received at the Vatican three Chilean whistleblowers in the sexual abuse case.
Scicluna is slated to return to Chile this week in a bid to rebuild relations among Chilean Catholics. But profound distrust still remains, and new charges of abuse and cover-ups have been aired publicly.
Bishop Gonzalo Duarte of Valparaiso, whose resignation was also accepted Monday, has been accused by parishioners of covering up abuse by former seminarians in his diocese, charges that he has rejected.
The third exiting priest, Bishop Cristian Caro of Puerto Montt, stands accused by some Catholics of having misinformed Francis on the allegations against Barros. Caro said in a statement that he offered his resignation because of his age — both he and Duarte have reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 — but asked for "forgiveness for my omissions.”
The scandals have deeply eroded many Chileans’ faith in their church, as has happened in many countries in recent years because of cases of abuse by priests. Chile has seen numbers of churchgoers fall, and a recent private poll showed only 45% of Chileans self-identifying as Catholic.
During his weeklong trip through Chile and Peru in January, Francis opened with a somber apology for sexual abuse by priests.
"I cannot help but express the pain and shame, shame that I feel over the irreparable harm caused to children by church ministers," Francis said at La Moneda government palace in Santiago. “Is it fair to ask for forgiveness?”
His later comments in apparent support of Barros set in motion a series of events that resulted in the pope’s decision Monday to accept the three resignations.