Pope accepts resignation of Chilean bishop at centre of sex abuse scandal

Pope Francis accepted the resignation Monday of the bishop at the centre of Chile's clerical sex abuse scandal and two others, launching a purge of a Catholic Church that has lost its credibility under an avalanche of accusations of abuse and coverup.

Pope Francis in January had defended Juan Barros, deeming allegations against Barros as 'calumny'

The bishop of Osorno, Juan Barros, is shown in the northern Chilean city of Iquique on Jan. 18. Pope Francis initially gave a strong defence of Barros, accused of covering up a priest's sexual abuse of minors. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis accepted the resignation Monday of the bishop at the centre of Chile's clerical sex abuse scandal and two others, launching a purge of a Catholic Church that has lost its credibility under an avalanche of accusations of abuse and coverup.

A Vatican statement said Francis had accepted the resignations of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Bishop Gonzalo Duarte of Valparaiso and Bishop Cristian Caro of Puerto Montt. Of the three, only the 61-year-old Barros is below the retirement age of 75.

Francis named temporary leaders for each of the dioceses.

Barros has been at the centre of Chile's growing scandal ever since 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 Chile's most notorious predator priest and had been accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.

Barros denied the charge, but joined 30 of Chile's other active bishops in offering their resignations to Francis at an extraordinary Vatican summit last month. Francis had summoned Chile's church leaders to Rome after realizing he had made "grave errors in judgment" about Barros, whom he had defended strongly during his troubled visit to Chile in January.

It wasn't immediately clear if the other resignations had been rejected on Monday or not yet acted on.

Barros's removal, which had been expected, was met with praise by abuse survivors and Catholics in Osorno, who warned, though, that more resignations and actions must follow to heal the devastation wrought by the scandal.

Francis is the first Pope to refer to a culture of coverup, but he also caused great alarm in Chile by stating there was not 'a single proof' in the accusations against Bishop Juan Barros. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

"A new day has begun in Chile's Catholic Church!" tweeted Juan Carlos Cruz, the abuse survivor who denounced Barros for years and pressed for the Vatican to take action.

"I'm thrilled for all those who have fought to see this day," he said. "The band of delinquent bishops ... begins to disintegrate today."

Resignations en masse

Francis realized he had misjudged the Chilean situation after meeting with Cruz and reading the 2,300-page report compiled by two leading Vatican investigators about the depth of Chile's scandal, which has devastated the credibility of the church in a once overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country in the pope's native Latin America.

Those two investigators, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, are heading back to Chile on Tuesday to begin what the Vatican has said is a "healing" mission to Osorno.

Chilean sexual abuse victims Jose Andres Murillo, right, James Hamilton, centre, and Juan Carlos Cruz, left, held a news conference at Rome's Foreign Press Association on May 2. Cruz hailed Monday's announcement. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

By accepting Barros's resignation on the eve of their arrival, Francis is essentially giving Scicluna and Bertomeu a hand in helping to heal the divisions in a diocese where Barros was never fully accepted as bishop.

But by also accepting the resignations of the two other bishops, Francis is making clear that the troubles in Chile's church do not rest on Barros's shoulders alone, or on those of the more than 40 other priests and three other bishops trained by the Rev. Fernando Karadima.

The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima, a powerful preacher close to Chile's elite, to a lifetime of penance and prayer for his sex crimes. But the Scicluna-Bertomeu report exposed a far bigger scandal that has implicated several religious orders, including priests and brothers in the Franciscans, Legion of Christ, Marist Brothers and Salesian orders.

It also exposed evidence that the Chilean hierarchy systematically covered up and minimized abuse cases, destroying evidence of sex crimes, pressuring church investigators to discredit abuse accusations and showing "grave negligence" in protecting children from pedophile priests.

Those findings, which leaked to the media while the Chilean bishops were at the Vatican, have opened a Pandora's Box of new accusations that recently led Francis to become the first pope to refer to a "culture of abuse and coverup" in the Catholic Church.

Chilean priest Fernando Karadima is shown in Santiago in court of Santiago on Nov. 11, 2015, during a civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Santiago. (Vladimir Rodas/AFP/Getty Images)

The biggest new scandal involved revelations of a gay priest sex ring in the Rancagua diocese of the bishop who headed the Chilean church's sex abuse prevention commission. To date 14 priests in Rancagua have been suspended and the bishop resigned as head of the commission after admitting he was slow to act on accusations that a minor had been abused.

Juan Carlos Claret, spokesperson for a group of Osorno lay Catholics who fiercely opposed Barros, said Francis's acceptance of the resignation signalled "the end of the damage" that the pope himself had inflicted on the diocese by appointing Barros in the first place.

Claros said Barros's exit was the "minimum condition" to begin a dialogue with the Vatican to try to rebuild peace in the diocese, and he called for a process to find "truth, justice and reparation" for the damage caused.

"Bishop Barros has ceased being bishop but he hasn't stopped being a brother in the faith, and for this if he too wants to seek forgiveness he is called to take part and assume his responsibilities," Claret said.