The bishops announced at the end of an emergency summit with Pope Francis that all 31 active bishops and three retired ones in Rome had signed a document offering to resign and putting their fate in the hands of the pope. Francis can accept the resignations one by one, reject them or delay a decision.
It marked the first known time in history that an entire national bishops conference had offered to resign en masse over the scandal, and laid bare the devastation that the abuse crisis has caused the Catholic Church in Chile and beyond.
Calls had mounted for the resignations after details emerged of the contents of a 2,300-page Vatican report into the Chilean scandal leaked early Friday. Francis had accused the bishops of destroying evidence of sex crimes, pressuring investigators to minimize abuse accusations and showing “grave negligence” in protecting children from pedophile priests.
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In one of the most damning documents from the Vatican on the issue, Francis said the entire Chilean church hierarchy was collectively responsible for “grave defects” in handling cases and the resulting loss of credibility that the Catholic Church has suffered.
“No one can exempt himself and place the problem on the shoulders of the others,” Francis wrote in the document, which was published by Chilean T13 television and confirmed as accurate Friday by the Vatican.
In a statement in response, the Chilean bishops said the contents of the document were “absolutely deplorable” and showed an “unacceptable abuse of power and conscience,” as well as sexual abuse.
They asked forgiveness to the victims, the pope and all Catholics and vowed to repair the damage.
Francis summoned the entire bishops’ conference to Rome after admitting that he had made “grave errors in judgment” in the case of Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of Chilean priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.
But the scandal grew beyond the Barros case after Francis received the report written by two Vatican sex crimes experts sent to Chile to get a handle on the scope of the problem. Their report hasn’t been made public, but Francis cited its core findings in the footnotes of the document that he handed over to the bishops at the start of their summit this week.
And those findings are damning.
Francis said the investigation showed there were “grave defects” in the way abuse cases were handled, with superficial investigations or no investigation at all of allegations that contained obvious evidence of crimes. The result, he said, “created a scandal for those who denounced them and all those who know the alleged victims.”
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In other cases, there was “grave negligence” in protecting children from pedophiles by bishops and religious superiors – a reference to the many cases of sexual abuse that have arisen in recent years within Chilean religious orders, including the Salesians, Franciscans and the Marist Brothers community.
Some of these religious order priests and brothers were expelled from their congregations because of immoral conduct, but had their cases “minimized of the absolute gravity of their criminal acts, attributing to them mere weakness or moral lapses,” Francis wrote.
But those same people “were then welcomed into other dioceses, in an obviously imprudent way, and given diocesan or parish jobs that gave them daily contact with minors,” he said.
Such behaviour has been the hallmark of the clerical sex abuse crisis worldwide, with bishops and religious superiors shuttling abusers from parish to parish or dioceses rather than reporting them to police or launching canonical investigations and removing them from ministry.
Francis said he was also “perplexed and ashamed” by the report’s evidence that there were “pressures exercised” on church officials tasked with investigating sex crimes “including the destruction of compromising documents on the part of those in charge of ecclesiastic archives.”
He said such behaviour showed “an absolute lack of respect for the canonical process and worse, reprehensible practices that must be avoided in the future.”
He said the problem wasn’t limited to a group of people, but can be traced to the training Chilean priests receive in seminary, blaming the “profound fracture” within the church on the seminaries themselves. The Vatican investigation, he said, contained “grave accusations against some bishops and superiors who sent to these educational institutions priests suspected of active homosexuality.”
The harsh assessment of the quality of seminaries suggests that a possible next step might be a full-on Vatican investigation of Chilean schools of priestly training. Pope Benedict XVI ordered such an investigation into Irish seminaries after he convened the entire Irish bishops’ conference for a similar dressing-down in 2010 over their dismal handling of abuse cases.
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“The problems inside the church community can’t be solved just by dealing with individual cases and reducing them to the removal of people, though this – and I say so clearly – has to be done,” Francis wrote. “But it’s not enough, we have to go beyond that. It would be irresponsible on our part to not look deeply into the roots and the structures that allowed these concrete events to occur and perpetuate.”
For years, sex abuse victims have blasted the Chilean hierarchy for discrediting their claims, protecting abusers and moving them around rather than reporting them to police and then handing out light sentences when church sanctions were imposed.
Based on Francis’ footnotes, the Vatican investigation compiled by the Catholic Church’s top abuse prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and his aide, Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, gave full credibility to the victims.
Francis, though, has also been implicated in the scandal, and in his document saying all Chilean bishops bore blame he added “and me first of all.”
Francis first drew scorn from victims, ordinary Chileans and even members of his sex abuse advisory board by appointing Barros bishop of Osorno, Chile, in 2015.
The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Francis did so over the objections of other Chilean bishops who knew Barros’ past was problematic and had recommended he and other Karadima-trained bishops resign and take a sabbatical.
The AP subsequently reported that Francis had received a letter in 2015 from one of Karadima’s most vocal accusers, Juan Carlos Cruz, detailing Barros’ misdeeds. That letter undercut Francis’ claim to have never heard from victims about Barros.
Francis further enraged Chileans and drew sharp rebuke from his top abuse adviser when, during a January trip to Chile, he said the accusations against Barros were “calumny” and said he was “certain” he was innocent.
After receiving the Scicluna-Bertomeu report, though, Francis did an about-face. Blaming a “lack of truthful and balanced information” about the case for his missteps, Francis invited the three main whistleblowers to the Vatican hotel he calls home so he could apologize in person.