Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis on Saturday accepted the resignation of Chilean cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, who agreed to step down after being accused of covering up sexual abuse by priests, the Vatican said.
Ezzati, archbishop of Santiago, is the seventh senior Chilean church official to resign over a scandal which the pope insists must be remedied.
To date, 77-year-old Ezzati, the Catholic Church’s highest official in Chile, has insisted he is innocent. He has promised to cooperate with the investigation into his activities — if the authorities first clear him.
“It’s not enough for to say, ‘You’re an accomplice.’ It needs to be proven. And I am going forward with my head held high,” Ezzati said in a declaration to Chilean media.
He presented his resignation to the pope in May 2018 along with all of Chile’s 34 bishops. So far the pontiff has accepted seven of the resignations.
The latest move in the Vatican’s attempts to deal with abuse within the higher echelons of the Roman Catholic Church comes just days after disgraced Australian Cardinal George Pell received a jail term for sexually abusing two choirboys.
Pell, formerly the Vatican number three, has maintained his innocence and says he plans to appeal his conviction on five offences including oral rape and molestation of the boys in 1996-1997.
– Moves to strip citizenship –
The decision over Ezzati was made after Chile’s court of appeal on Friday confirmed he would face trial for not calling out sexual abuse by three priests, one of whom was his close aide.
Ezzati was made a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1996. He served as the bishop for Santiago from 2010, and four years later Pope Francis made him a cardinal.
Born in Italy, Ezzati took Chilean nationality in 2006. But in January a parliamentary commission voted to strip him of that citizenship, a measure that still needs to be ratified by both legislative chambers.
In announcing Ezzati’s resignation, the Vatican on Saturday said the pope named bishop Celestino Aos Braco, who was serving in Copiapo, a city 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of the capital, as the apostolic administrator for the Santiago archdiocese.
Aos Braco was one among the bishops who offered to resign in May.
Chile is one of the countries most caught up in the widening scandal of sexual wrongdoing by priests.
The pope, who is Argentine, was accused of not taking appropriate steps after a controversial visit he made in January 2018.
Afterwards, Francis listened more acutely to Chilean victims and made an apology before summoning all of Chile’s bishops to the Vatican in May 2018 for discussions that led to their resignation letters.
One of the victims, Jaime Concha, told AFP that the ousting of Ezzati “is late… and not enough.”
– French cardinal decision –
The pope’s action on Ezzati contrasted with his rejection last Monday of a resignation offered by French cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was handed a six-month suspended jail sentence earlier this month for failing to report sex abuse by a priest under his authority. Barbarin has appealed.
Vatican-watchers noted that the matter related to Barbarin occurred under his predecessors and it was likely that the pope did not want to create a precedent even as he seeks to clean up historic scandals.
The pontiff stated last month that “no abuse must ever be covered up, as has happened in the past” as the Church struggles to restore trust in its efforts to fight child abuse, given the slew of cases.
In October, Francis did, reluctantly, accept the resignation of US cardinal and Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, accused of helping to cover up hundreds of child abuse cases in his former diocese.
And in February the pontiff defrocked former cardinal American Theodore McCarrick, 88, who a Vatican court found guilty of sexually abusing a teenager 50 years ago.
McCarrick became the first cardinal ever to be defrocked for sex abuse.