VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis began purging Chile’s Catholic hierarchy on Monday over an avalanche of sex abuse and cover-up cases, starting with accepting the resignations of the bishop at the center of the scandal and two others.
More heads were expected to roll, given that the scandal has only grown in the weeks since all of Chile’s 30-plus active bishops offered to quit over their collective failure to protect Chile’s children from priests who raped, groped and molested them.
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. He named a temporary leader for each diocese.
Barros, 61, has been at the center of Chile’s growing scandal 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.
Barros had been a top lieutenant of Chile’s most notorious predator priest and had been accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse by that priest.
Barros denied the charge, but he twice offered to resign in the ensuing years. Last month, he joined the rest of Chile’s bishops in offering to step down during an extraordinary Vatican summit. Francis had summoned Chile’s church leaders to Rome after realizing he had made “grave errors in judgment” about Barros, whom he had defended during a visit to Chile in January.
In a statement Monday, Barros asked forgiveness “for my limitations and what I couldn’t handle.” He thanked the pope for his concern for the common good and said he prayed “that one day all the truth will shine.”
Barros’s removal, which had been expected, was praised by abuse survivors and Catholics in Osorno.
“A new day has begun in Chile’s Catholic Church!” tweeted Juan Carlos Cruz, the abuse survivor who had denounced Barros for years and pressed the Vatican to take action.
“I’m thrilled for all those who have fought to see this day,” he said. “The band of criminal bishops . . . begins to disintegrate today.”
The other two bishops whose resignations were accepted had submitted them previously after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. But victims had accused both of having botched cases in the past.
Francis realized he had misjudged the Chilean situation after meeting with Cruz and reading a 2,300-page report compiled by two Vatican investigators about the depth of Chile’s scandal.
The investigators, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, are heading to Chile on Tuesday to begin what the Vatican has said is a “healing” mission to Osorno.
But with the other two resignations, 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.
Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.