The announcement from the Vatican on Friday that all of the members of the episcopal conference of Chile — 31 active bishops and three retired — had offered to resign over their handling of clergy sexual abuse is a watershed moment in the history of the handling of sex abuse in the Church.

The dramatic step by the Chilean bishops followed less than 24 hours after the end of three days of meetings between the shepherds of Chile with Pope Francis in the Vatican, from May 15-17, and the details that were leaked from Pope Francis’ 8-page letter to them, which relied on the reportedly incendiary 2,300-page report by the Vatican’s investigators on the full dimensions of the sexual abuse problem in Chile as well as the enormity of the failure of Catholic leadership in the country.

The Chilean bishops’ collective resignation offer finds virtually no precedent in history, although it can be seen as the logical even inevitable progression in the expectation that the bishops must lead the Church’s response to the crisis or face mounting pressure to resign when they fail in that vital task. To see the progression, we can turn to two of the most widely covered countries: the United States and Ireland. 

 

The American Experience

As the dimensions of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the United States expanded in late 2001 and early 2002, 12 of the U.S. cardinals and leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traveled to Rome in April 2002 to meet with Vatican officials and Pope John Paul II. Among the Vatican officials was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who proved a key figure in assisting the U.S. bishops in their difficult path toward crafting a lasting and legally viable response to the problem. 

As part of their meetings, John Paul delivered an address, in which he established some themes that have been echoed and reiterated by his two successors, Benedict XVI and Francis. 

John Paul stressed the place of the popes in guiding the process of finding solutions. “You have come,” he said, “to the house of the Successor of Peter, whose task it is to confirm his brother Bishops in faith and love, and to unite them around Christ in the service of God’s People. The door of this house is always open to you. All the more so when your communities are in distress.”

He went on to speak of the victims and their families, saying that to “the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern.” He acknowledged that abuse is considered a crime by society but also “an appalling sin in the eyes of God.” And he affirmed in clear terms “that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young” and that “so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.”

The bishops went on to meet in what is now seen as a historic gathering in Dallas in June 2002 that led to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the National Review Board, a lay committee working with the USCCB, that became global guideposts for dealing with cases and also forging a safe environment for minors. 

The U.S. experience also led to the much-anticipated resignation in December 2002 of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston, after his record in handling the sex abuse cases made his staying on in Boston utterly untenable. 

 

Ireland

By 2010, publicity and outrage over the sex abuse crisis reached a height in Ireland, and the Irish bishops seemed overwhelmed by the number and severity of cases and scandal. Their credibility in the country and especially their own dioceses was collapsing in the face of the media and legal onslaught and the understandable fury of the average Catholic faithful. The crisis likewise damaged the Church’s ability to proclaim clear moral teaching at a time when Ireland was undergoing a cultural sea change toward secularism, relativism and the rejection of traditional morality. 

In February 2010, the Irish bishops traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict. In a statement after the meetings, the Irish Bishops’ Conference noted that the bishops “spoke frankly of the sense of pain and anger, betrayal, scandal and shame expressed to them on numerous occasions by those who had been abused. There was a similar sense of outrage reflected by laity, priests and religious in this regard.” They added that Benedict “observed that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image. While realizing that the current painful situation will not be resolved quickly, he challenged the Bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.” 

On March 19, 2010, Benedict issued a letter to the Catholics of Ireland, offering a humble and sincere apology for the failures of Church leaders. “I have met with victims of sexual abuse,” he wrote, “as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them.” He went on to speak directly to the victims and their families, writing, “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated…It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”

He also had blunt words for the bishops with whom he had just met. “It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously,” he wrote, “to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations … it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred.”

Earlier, in November 2009, the independent inquiry known as the Murphy Report had been released, revealing the failures on the part of the Dublin archdiocese, and resignations began among the Irish bishops. By the end of the year, four bishops had offered their resignations to Pope Benedict, heightening the sense of emergency for the meeting with the pope the following February. In the immediate wake of the meeting in Rome and the release of the papal letter, Bishop John Magee of Cloyne — a one-time papal secretary — resigned. 

The crisis in Ireland has never fully subsided, and bishops have resigned as recently as March of this year. In January, Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick warned that the Church in Ireland must not think that the worst is over. 

 

What Next For Chile?

Pope Francis has followed the basic approach of his predecessors of bringing the bishops to Rome to meet and find a way forward. One major aspect of the approach has now changed, however. 

The last two decades — as exemplified by the American and the Irish experiences — show that bishops who have demonstrably failed their flock are facing increasing pressure, even an expectation, to resign. The mass response by the Chilean episcopal conference points to a new awareness that drastic failures in leadership on the part of the Church’s shepherds may require drastic responses. 

As it stands now, it is up to Francis to reject or accept their offer.

Francis, however, is holding the bishops of Chile accountable in a very public fashion and they have responded in humility, with a plea for forgiveness from the victims and the faithful whom they have apparently failed and a willingness to step aside en masse for the good of the Church. He is highly likely to accept some of the resignations. Look for Francis to speak again to the Chilean Catholics and to victims — like John Paul II and Benedict before him — with a plea for forgiveness. Watch as well for concrete plans and proposals for institutional reform and renewal that include delving into what Francis wrote “are the roots and structures that allowed these specific events to happen and to be perpetuated.” 

The problems the Church in Chile faces are severe. Solving them has required a stern, transparent and broad understanding of authentic reform. The resignations of some of the Chilean bishops may help to hasten that process. Bishops around the world now know also that they may face the same hard decision. Chile may have set a genuine precedent.