Pope Accepts Resignation of Chilean Bishop Tied to Abuse Scandal
ROME — In January, Pope Francis deeply offended survivors of clerical abuse and threatened the reputation of his pontificate when he defended a Chilean bishop from the “calumny” of victims and said that he had refused the bishop’s offers of resignation.
On Monday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of that bishop, Juan Barros of Osorno.
The resignation of Bishop Barros and of two other bishops in Chile is a remarkable reversal for Francis. Only months ago, the Chilean scandal represented an enormous threat to the pope’s credibility. Now, abuse victims and their advocates express hope that a new era is beginning in which bishops and the church hierarchy will be held accountable for covering up and ignoring abuse.
“Today begins a new day for the Catholic Church in Chile and hopefully the world,” Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, one of Chile’s most notorious abusive priests, wrote on Twitter on Monday. The priest was a mentor of Bishop Barros, who Mr. Cruz says witnessed his abuse and did nothing.
Mr. Cruz added that Francis, whom he has met with for hours of private and emotional talks in recent weeks, “has started the firing of bishops who are abusers or have covered up. We hope this is the beginning of the end of this culture of abuse and cover up in the Church. Emotional but great day!”
The pope also accepted the resignations of Cristián Caro Cordero, bishop of Puerto Montt, and Gonzalo Duarte García de Cortázar, bishop of Valparaíso, both of whom are 75, the mandatory retirement age for bishops in the church. Bishop Barros, who is accused of witnessing and covering up abuse, is 61. He denies the allegations against him.
The removal of the bishops could herald what many church observers predict will be widespread firings of Chile’s bishops, all of whom tendered their resignations in May. The pope has already lamented the country’s “culture of abuse and cover-up.”
Francis had moved Bishop Barros from Chile’s military diocese to the southern diocese of Osorno in 2015, a decision that prompted outrage from local Catholics and from victims of Father Karadima, whom the Vatican found guilty of sexually abusing minors in 2011.
At the time, the country’s largely Socialist-led Parliament sought to block the installment of Bishop Barros. That move apparently prompted Francis to say, in recorded remarks, “Think with the head, don’t be led around by the nose by these leftists.”
The pope doubled down on his defense of Bishop Barros in January during a trip to Chile, in which he said he had never seen any proof against the bishop. Remarkably, some of Francis’ closest associates, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the city at the center of the abuse crisis in the United States, distanced themselves from the pope.
Pressure on Francis continued to build in the days after his return to Rome. He then sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator, to talk to Mr. Karadima’s victims in the United States and in Chile about Bishop Barros. Archbishop Scicluna spoke to 64 people and gave Francis a 2,300-page report that led the pope to issue an extraordinary apology. “I have made serious errors of judgment and perception of the situation, especially due to lack of truthful and balanced information,” Francis wrote.
He added that replacing bishops was “necessary” but not enough, and he accused Chile’s hierarchy of destroying evidence in cases of clerical sexual abuse and moving abusive priests from parish to parish.
Other bishops accused of covering up abuse include Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati of Santiago, the Chilean capital, and Bishop Alejandro Goic, who until weeks ago served as president of the Chilean church’s National Commission for the Prevention of Abuses.
In Geneva on Thursday, advocates against clerical abuse announced the formation of a new international group, End Clergy Abuse, and demanded that Pope Francis bring back plans to create a Vatican tribunal to hold bishops accountable for covering up or failing to root out abuse.
Aggressive prosecutions of prelates in Australia, police raids on the offices of an American diocese, and a large-scale investigation in England have led some experts to note that civil authorities no longer appear to see church leaders as untouchable. The questions of how the Vatican will deal with its own hierarchy and whether Francis has really seen past his blind spot remain, however.
Advocates say they are hopeful. This week, Archbishop Scicluna will head back to Chile and is expected in Bishop Barros’s diocese on June 14. His visit is being described by the church as a “process of reparation and healing.”