VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has defrocked two Chilean former bishops for allegedly sexually abusing minors, the Vatican said on Saturday after a meeting between the pontiff and Chile’s president.
The decision to expel former archbishop Francisco Jose Cox Huneeus and former bishop Marco Antonio Ordenes Fernandez — the latest heads to roll in a country hit hard by the cleric abuse scandal — is not open to appeal.
Both were stripped of their priesthood “as a consequence of overt acts of abuse against minors”, it said.
The announcement came a day after the pope accepted the resignation of Washington DC archbishop Donald Wuerl, who has been blamed for not doing enough to deal with paedophile priests.
Saturday’s defrocking was “an extremely unusual, if not unprecedented” move, wrote Ines San Martin, a Vatican expert working for specialist Catholic website Crux.
Defrocking is considered the Church’s harshest penalty for priests, barring the offender from exercising any clerical duties at all, even in private.
Scores of new cases involving the abuse of minors by priests have come to light in Chile, deepening a crisis in the Roman Catholic Church that has also embroiled Pope Francis.
On Saturday, Francis met with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera at the Vatican for talks on the “difficult situation” in Chile.
They discussed “the painful scourge of abuse of minors, reiterating the effort of all in collaboration to combat and prevent the perpetration of such crimes and their concealment”, the Vatican said.
The leaders “shared the hope that the church could live a true rebirth,” Pinera said in a statement.
A total of 167 bishops, priests and lay members of the church in Chile are now under investigation for sexual crimes committed since 1960.
– Years of allegations –
Fernandez became a bishop in 2006, at the age of 42, but resigned just six years later, allegedly for health reasons.
It later transpired he had been accused of sexual abuse, sparking both a church and a civil investigation.
“The civil investigation is still ongoing because he’s never responded to a court subpoena to give testimony,” Vatican expert San Martin said.
Last seen in public in 2013, Fernandez has reportedly been living a life of penitence and prayer in Peru, she wrote.
The allegations of abuse against Cox date back to the 1970s.
The Vatican said he would remain part of the Schoenstatt Fathers institute in Germany.
Now 85 and reportedly in precarious health, the prelate has lived at the institute since 2002, San Martin said.
In a statement, the Schoenstatt Fathers reaffirmed its “willingness to collaborate” with anything that the judicial authorities required.
It pledged to “ask for a medical evaluation to determine whether it is possible for Francisco Jose Cox to return to Chile”.
Legal proceedings were initiated in Germany against Cox over the alleged abuse of a child in care in 2004, Deutsche Welle radio reported.
– A church failure –
Francis has already apologised repeatedly to Chileans over the scandal, admitting the church failed “to listen and react” to the allegations, but has vowed to “restore justice”.
In May, the Argentine pontiff accepted the resignation of five Chilean bishops following allegations of abuse and related coverups.
Francis himself became mired in the scandal when, during a trip to Chile in January, he defended 61-year-old bishop Juan Barros, who was accused of covering up abuse by paedophile priest Fernando Karadima in the 1980s and 1990s.
Karadima was suspended for life by the Vatican over allegations of child molestation.
Francis eventually accepted he was wrong to defend Barros and subsequently accepted his resignation. —AFP