Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of three Chilean bishops, including the controversial Juan Barros of Osorno, following a child sex abuse scandal in the South American country which has come to haunt his papacy.
In an unprecedented move, all of Chile’s 34 bishops offered to resign en masse last month after attending a meeting with the pope over allegations of a cover-up of sexual abuse.
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The mass resignation of an entire delegation of bishops is almost unheard of, having last happened two centuries ago.
A Vatican official said Monday’s move represented a first step towards re-ordering the battered Roman Catholic Church in Chile and that the pope was still considering the positions of the other prelates.
Besides 61-year-old Barros, the pope also agreed to the departures of Cristian Caro Cordero, bishop of Puerto Montt, and Gonzalo Duarte Garcia de Cortazar, bishop of Valparaiso, who had both reached the normal retirement age of 75.
Barros has been at the centre of the growing scandal ever since Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno in 2015 over the objections of the local faithful, his own sex abuse prevention advisers and some of Chile’s other bishops.
They questioned Barros’ suitability to lead given he had been a top lieutenant of Chilean paedophile priest Fernando Karadima and had been accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.
The scandal is the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church, and Argentine-born Francis said it must not happen again on his watch.
“Today begins a new day for the Catholic Church in Chile and hopefully the world,” Juan Carlos Cruz, the key witness in the abuse case, said on Twitter.
“We hope this is the beginning of the end of this culture of abuse and cover up in the Church. Emotional but great day!” he wrote.
Pope Francis has apologised to the victims and admitted he had made “grave mistakes” after reading a 2,300-page report on abuses in Chile.
In a letter to Chileans released at the end of last month, the pontiff voiced “shame” that the Catholic Church failed “to listen and react in time” to the allegations of sexual abuse by Chilean clergy.
He has since received two groups of Karadima’s victims at the Vatican.
Since 2000, about 80 Roman Catholic priests have been reported to authorities in Chile for alleged sexual abuse.
Despite a strong Catholic tradition, Chile is witnessing a growing rift between the people and the Church, sharpened by the string of sexual abuse scandals.
President Sebastian Pinera, a practising Catholic, recently said he was saddened by the fact that the Church “is increasingly remote, not only from worshippers but from people in general”.