VATICAN CITY and SANTIAGO (Reuters) - In an unprecedented move, all of Chile’s bishops offered to resign on Friday after attending a crisis meeting this week with Pope Francis about the cover-up of sexual abuse in the South American nation.
Several victims invited by the pope to Rome earlier this month said they wanted all 34 bishops sacked and replaced by more moral candidates, and for the Vatican to extend punishment to others implicated in the scandal.
The offer of mass resignations on Friday by the bishops summoned to Rome marks the first time that all the senior Roman Catholic prelates of a country have taken such a step, a Vatican official said.
A Vatican official declined to speculate on the pope’s response.
“We have put our positions in the hands of the Holy Father and will leave it to him to decide freely for each of us,” the bishops said in a joint statement read out by a spokesman for them, Bishop Fernando Ramos.
The announcement followed four days of discussions in the Vatican, where the pope accused the bishops of “grave negligence” in investigating allegations that children had been abused and saying evidence of sex crimes had been destroyed.
Apologizing to the victims, the pope and to Chile for the failings of Chile’s churchmen, Ramos said the bishops would all stay in their roles until Francis had decided what to do.
The scandal that has swirled around the Chilean church for more than 20 years erupted four months ago when the pope visited Chile, prompting questions about his response to the serious claims of abuse.
Chilean victims of abuse welcomed news the bishops were ready to stand down but insisted the Vatican should take further, punitive action against the bishops.
Juan Carlos Cruz, one of three Chilean victims invited by the pope to Rome earlier this month, said the “corrupt” bishops should be replaced by those in the church who had helped abuse victims.
“There are very good people within the Chilean Church who could take over the reigns and repair the damage done by these corrupt bishops,” Cruz said in an interview.
Eneas Espinoza, a Chilean man who claims to have been abused while at a school run by the Marist brothers, called on the pope to pursue a canonical prosecution that could see them stripped of all titles and benefits.
“We want concrete, real action,” he said in an interview. “I don’t want my abuser to end up living in a plush retirement home.”
The scandal revolves around Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a 2011 Vatican investigation of abusing boys in Santiago in the 1970s and 1980s. Now 87 and living in a nursing home in Chile, he has always denied any wrongdoing.
Victims accused Bishop Juan Barros of having witnessed the abuse but doing nothing to stop it. Barros, who was one of those who offered to stand down, has denied the allegations.
Friday’s resignations came just four months after the pope had visited Chile in a trip that raised questions over his response to abuse scandals that have rocked the church over the past 17 years and his willingness to deal with the crisis.
During the visit, Pope Francis staunchly defended Barros, denouncing accusations against him as “slander.”
But days after returning to Rome, the pope, citing new information, sent sexual abuse investigator Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to Chile to speak to victims, witnesses and other church members.
Some of his findings were included in a damning 10-page document that was presented to the bishops this week, according to Chile’s T13 television, which obtained a leaked copy. A source in the Vatican confirmed the report was genuine.
In it, the pope said he felt “shame” over the pressure put on people not to carry out full investigations into what had happened, saying some churchmen had been afraid to face their responsibilities and confront “the ramifications of evil.”
“We are all involved, myself in first place, and no one can be exempted by looking to shift the problem onto the backs of others,” the pope wrote.
Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara and Aislinn Laing in Chile and Phil Pullella in Rome; editing by Andrew Roche and Richard Chang