Pope Francis accepts resignations of three Chilean bishops

VATICAN CITY/SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Pope Francis has accepted the resignations of three Chilean bishops following sex abuse scandals, including Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, the city at the center of the uproar, the Vatican said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: Bishop Juan Barros looks on as Pope Francis leaves at the end of a mass at the Lobito beach in Iquique, Chile January 18, 2018. Picture taken January 18, 2018 REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

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 in the country.

A Vatican official said Monday’s move represented a first step toward 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 García de Cortazar, bishop of Valparaiso, who had both reached the normal retirement age of 75.

Church administrators were appointed to run all three dioceses.

Barros, who has always denied allegations he witnessed and covered up sexual abuse cases, asked for forgiveness for his “limitations” in handling the scandal in a statement.

He asked the Virgin Mary “that one day the whole truth will shine forth.”

Victims hailed his removal and suggested he and others should face prosecution by the judicial authorities.

Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman for a group of lay Catholics in Osorno who fought for Barros’ removal from office, said it was a “minimum condition” that they had sought from the pope.

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“The pope has a big challenge to guarantee that this cannot happen again,” he told Reuters by phone. “A pope could come into office that doesn’t care about these things, that’s why concrete changes have to be made.”

He called for judicial authorities to examine whether some abusers, or those who helped cover up abuse, could be prosecuted.

“The resignation of these bishops should not dilute their criminal responsibility,” he said. “They shouldn’t leave their posts to go home; some of them should go to prison. The pope has statements in his possession (from his investigators) that contain allegations of crimes we don’t even know about.”

Jaime Coiro, general secretary of the Chilean Catholic Church, noted that the pope has said the case will require short-, medium- and long-term measures, which could include accepting the resignations of more bishops. “We can’t rule out the possibility that he could take further steps,” Coiro added.

Pope Francis last month promised to Chilean Catholics scarred by a culture of clergy sexual abuse that “never again” would the church ignore them or the cover-up of abuse in their country.

The scandal revolves around Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 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 Barros of having witnessed the abuse but doing nothing to stop it. Barros was named bishop of Osorno in 2015 by Pope Francis, who ignored objections from some clergy and churchgoers.

During a trip to Chile in January, the pope staunchly defended Barros, saying he believed he was innocent, and that accusations against him were “slander” until proven otherwise.

But days after returning to Rome, a chastened pope, citing new information, sent sexual abuse investigator Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to Chile to speak to victims, witnesses and other church members.

He produced a 2,300-page report which accused Chile’s bishops of “grave negligence” in investigating allegations that children had been abused and said evidence of sex crimes had been destroyed.

Scicluna is due to return to Chile this week to gather more information.

Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara and Aislinn Laing; Editing by Angus MacSwan, David Stamp and James Dalgleish