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 guilt in failing 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 ever 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.
They questioned Barros' suitability to lead given he 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 strongly 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' removal, which had been expected, was praised by abuse survivors and Catholics in Osorno. Some said more housecleaning now is needed to heal the devastation wrought by the scandal.
"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 prior to the pope's summit after having reached 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 leading Vatican investigators about the depth of Chile's scandal.
The investigators, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, are heading back to Chile on Tuesday to begin what the Vatican has said is a "healing" mission to Osorno.
By accepting Barros' resignation, Francis essentially gave Scicluna and Bertomeu a hand in helping to heal the divisions in a diocese where Barros never was fully accepted as bishop.
But with the other two resignations, Francis is making clear that the troubles in Chile's church do not rest on Barros' 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, the Legion of Christ, the Marist Brothers and the Salesian orders.
It also exposed evidence that the Chilean hierarchy systematically covered up and minimized abuse cases, destroying evidence of sex crimes, pressuring church investigators to discredit abuse accusations and showing "grave negligence" in protecting children from pedophile priests.
Those findings, which leaked to the media while the Chilean bishops were at the Vatican, have opened a Pandora's Box of new accusations that led Francis to become the first pope to refer to a "culture of abuse and cover-up" in the Catholic Church.
The biggest new scandal involved revelations of a gay priest sex ring in the Rancagua diocese of the bishop who headed the Chilean church's sex abuse prevention commission. To date, 14 priests in Rancagua have been suspended and the bishop resigned as head of the commission after admitting he was slow to act on accusations that a minor had been abused.
Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman for a group of Osorno lay Catholics who fiercely opposed Barros, said Francis' acceptance of the bishop's resignation signaled "the end of the damage" that the pope himself had inflicted on the diocese by appointing Barros in the first place.
Claret said Barros' exit was the "minimum condition" to begin a dialogue with the Vatican to try to rebuild peace in the diocese. He called for a process to find "truth, justice and reparation" for the damage caused.
"Bishop Barros has ceased being bishop but he hasn't stopped being a brother in the faith, and for this — if he too wants to seek forgiveness — he is called to take part and assume his responsibilities," Claret said.