Pope Francis poses with Chilean bishops after a meeting at the Vatican, May 17, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)
In an unprecedented move, all Chile's bishops offered to resign en masse on Friday after attending a crisis meeting this week with Pope Francis about the cover-up of sexual abuse in the south American nation.
It is the first time that all the senior Roman Catholic prelates of a country have taken such a step, a Vatican official said, underscoring the damage being wreaked on the church by seemingly never-ending clerical abuse scandals.
It was not immediately clear if the pope would accept all or any of the resignations of the 34 bishops, and a Vatican official declined to speculate on when he might make a decision.
"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.
Apologising 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.
Victims of the abuse welcomed news the bishops were ready to stand down. "This will change things forever," Juan Carlos Cruz, one of three Chilean victims invited by the pope to see him in Rome earlier this month, wrote on Twitter.
José Andrés Murillo, another of the victims invited to see the pope, said Francis should accept all the resignations.
"They did not know how to protect the weakest, exposed them to abuses and then prevented justice," he wrote on Twitter. "That's why they all deserve to go."
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 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 mass 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.