VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Saturday replaced Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati as archbishop of Santiago, Chile, after he was placed under criminal investigation in the country’s spiraling church sex abuse and cover-up scandal.
Francis accepted Ezzati’s resignation and named a temporary replacement to govern Chile’s most important archdiocese: the Spanish-born Capuchin friar and current bishop of Copiapo, Chile, Monsignor Celestino Aos Braco.
In a statement asking for prayers for his new job, Aos acknowledged the difficulties ahead, noting the “light and darkness, success and shortcomings, wounds and sins” of the Santiago church. But Aos too faced accusations of cover-up after a former seminarian accused him of helping stall his case years ago.
The 77-year-old Ezzati had submitted his resignation to Francis two years ago when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. But Francis kept him on, and Ezzati became the flashpoint of abuse survivors’ ire for mishandling several cases of abuse.
Just Friday, an appeals court in Chile allowed prosecutors to continue investigating Ezzati for an alleged cover-up, rejecting his motion to dismiss the case and remove himself from the probe, Chilean media reported.
Ezzati has denied covering up any cases but has acknowledged the pain of abuse victims and vowed to promote transparency.
Francis himself became embroiled in the scandal in Chile after initially discrediting victims during his 2018 trip to the country, sparking a crisis in confidence in the Chilean hierarchy and his own leadership.
After realizing his error and apologizing to the victims, Francis summoned all of Chile’s 30-plus active bishops to the Vatican last May and strong-armed them into offering their resignations. With Ezzati’s resignation Saturday, Francis has accepted eight of them.
Chilean abuse survivors have long accused Ezzati and his predecessor in Santiago, Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, of protecting predator priests and discrediting victims. In recent weeks, Ezzati has been embroiled in a new scandal after a man sued him for allegedly covering up his rape inside the cathedral.
The Chile abuse scandal first erupted in 2009, when victims publicly accused one of the country’s most prominent preachers, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, of molesting them for years. Errazuriz initially shelved an investigation, only to have the Vatican eventually convict Karadima in a church tribunal.
Amid the renewed eruption of the scandal last year, Francis stiffened the penalty against Karadima and defrocked him.
Francis had sparked the recent crisis by strongly defending one of Karadima’s proteges, Bishop Juan Barros, against accusations that he had witnessed Karadima’s abuse and ignored it. But after realizing that something was amiss, Francis ordered a Vatican investigation that uncovered decades of abuse and cover-ups by the Chilean church leadership, Barros and Ezzati included.
Pollsters have cited the Karadima scandal as the tipping point in the Chilean church’s progressive loss of credibility among ordinary Chileans.
One of Karadima’s victims and Ezzati’s harshest critic, Juan Carlos Cruz, welcomed Aos’ appointment, tweeting that “anything is better than Ezzati and his band.”
But a former seminarian, Mauricio Pulgar, said Aos didn’t allow him to present proof or witnesses to back up his claims of abuse by a priest, the Rev. Jaime LaFonseca, when he first presented them in 2012.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Pulgar said Aos – who had been tasked to investigate the case while based in Valparaiso – “covered up abusers and one of them was Jaime LaFonseca and that allowed him to keep abusing for six more years.”
LaFonseca was finally defrocked last year.
The Chilean Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday on Aos’ role in the LaFonseca case.