Chile’s bishops have tendered an unprecedented mass resignation over a decades-long abuse scandal after Pope Francis accused the country’s church of destroying evidence of sexual crimes and “the gravest negligence” in the protection of minors.
In a damning 10-page report delivered to 34 Chilean bishops who were summoned to the Vatican this week, the pontiff said the Chilean Church was collectively responsible for “serious defects” in the handling of abuse cases.
Priests removed over sexual abuse had been moved to other dioceses where they remained in contact with children, complaints had been dismissed despite convincing evidence, and Church lawyers had been pressured to limit or halt investigations, he said. Prelates had also destroyed “compromising documents”, Pope Francis added.
Accusing the Chilean Church of “becoming self-focused” and falling into “ecclesiastical perversions” of messianism and elitism, the Pope said the depth of abuse in the South American country was a “painful open wound”. While individuals must be removed from their posts, it was not enough to address the problem, which, he declared, lay in “the system”.
Announcing their resignation offer on Friday, the Chilean bishops said they would stay in their roles while they awaited the Pope’s decision. In a statement delivered by Bishop Fernando Ramos, they asked “forgiveness for the pain caused to the victims, to the pope, to the people of God and our country for the serious errors and omissions committed by us”.
The confidential document, leaked to Chilean TV channel T13, is the result of a Vatican investigation into the case of Father Fernando Karadima, a now 87-year-old former priest who had been accused of abusing minors as early as 1984. The Chilean Church failed to act on the complaints until the early 2000s, and then dismissed the findings of investigators; it was not until 2011, after a group of accusers went public, that he was deemed guilty of sexual and psychological abuse and finally defrocked. However, due to the statute of limitations, criminal prosecution was then impossible.
Three of Karadima’s victims – Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and José Andrés Murillo – were received at the Vatican two weeks ago and urged the Pope to “stop the epidemic of sexual abuse and cover-ups”. Mr Hamilton explained that he had been first abused by the Santiago priest at the age of 17 in 1983; the abuses had lasted 20 years, he said, with Karadima blackmailing him by threaten to reveal the sexual contacts to his wife.
In a public letter, Pope Francis admitted to making “serious mistakes” in his own handling of the scandal “due to the lack of truthful and balanced information”, and asked for forgiveness “from all those I have offended”.
The pontiff drew outrage in Chile during a visit to the country in January when he defended Bishop Juan Barros, a former protege of Karadima, who is accused of having protected the predatory priest despite allegedly witnessing the abuse. Pope Francis appointed Barros to head the diocese of Osorno in 2015, even though the accusations against the Chilean bishop had been public for at least three years.