By Ines San Martin
ROME (Crux) – In an extremely unusual, if not unprecedented move, Pope Francis on Saturday imposed what’s tantamount to the Church’s version of capital punishment on two retired Chilean bishops accused of sexual abuse of minors, expelling them from the priesthood.
In the case of Archbishop Francisco Cox, it’s a day some of his earliest victims have been awaiting for more than 40 years. The pope also removed from the clerical state the bishop emeritus of Iquique, Marco Antonio Ordenes Fernandez, who retired from his position in 2012 at the age of 47.
According to a Vatican statement released on Saturday, “the decision was adopted by the pope last Thursday, Oct. 11, and does not allow for recourse,” meaning there’s no possibility of appeal.
The Vatican statement also indicated that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has notified both men of the penalties through their respective superiors in their current residences. It also noted that Cox, though no longer a priest, remains a part of the institute of the Schönstatt Fathers.
The pope’s decision was announced by the Vatican on Saturday shortly after Francis met with Chilean president Sebastian Piñera.
Fernandez was the youngest Catholic prelate in the history of the Church in Chile, becoming a bishop at the age of 42. He was named a bishop in 2006, and resigned six years later citing reasons of health related to hepatitis.
It was later revealed, however, that Fernandez had been accused of sexual abuse which eventually triggered investigations both by the papal representative in Chile and the civil justice system. The civil investigation is still ongoing because he’s never responded to a court subpoena to give testimony.
Fernandez was last seen in public in 2013, and reportedly had been living a life of penitence and prayer in Peru.
Cox, meanwhile, has long been the object of abuse allegations.
In a statement released Oct. 6, Schönstatt Father Fernando Baeza, the order’s provincial superior in Santiago, Chile, said an accusation of abuse that occurred in Germany in 2004 against Cox, who belongs to the order, was reported in 2017 and that the allegations were being investigated by the Vatican.
Upon Crux’s requests for comments, Father Juan Pablo Catoggio, Superior General of the Schönstatt Fathers, said that at the request of the Congregation for Bishops, Cox has been living in the central house of Schönstatt in Germany, since 2002. The abusive prelate is now 85 and his health is “precarious,” with signs “of senile dementia.”
Though it’s unclear when the abuses began, it’s been well documented that by the year 1974, when he arrived as bishop in the Chilean diocese of Chillan, Cox was already abusing minors by kissing them on the mouth, touching their private parts and masturbating by having them sit on his lap with their clothes on.
From Chillan he would move on to become secretary of the Vatican’s former Pontifical Council for the Family, a position he held from 1981 until 1985, when he was sent back to Chile as coadjutor bishop of La Serena. In 1987 he was tapped to organize Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chile, which allowed him to become close to then-Archbishop Angelo Sodano, papal representative in the country.
To this day, many observers point to Cardinal Sodano, who would become the Vatican’s Secretary of State during the final years of John Paul’s papacy, as the architect of the crisis that is rocking the Chilean Church. To date, seven bishops had their resignations accepted by the pope in recent months after the episcopacy resigned en masse.
In addition, eight bishops have been summoned by the prosecutors office to testify on charges that they either covered up for abuse or sexually abused minors and young seminarians themselves. Among these is Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, who’s been subpoenaed but is still technically leading the Archdiocese of Santiago.
However, sources on the ground have told Crux that for all intents and purposes, the Church in Santiago is headless, with only one auxiliary bishop left, as four others have been appointed apostolic administrators to some of the most troubled dioceses.
Cox was eventually named archbishop of La Serena, a position he kept until 1997, when his resignation was discreetly accepted by the Vatican. It came five years after a priest made a formal complaint to the bishops’ conference claiming he had discovered Cox having sex with a young man.
Yet until 2002, when he began living a life of “penance and prayer,” first in Switzerland and then in Germany under the care of the Schönstatt Fathers at the request of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, according to Father Catoggio, Cox remained semi-active, with positions in the Conference of Latin American Bishops as well as in the Vatican.
In 2002, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz referred to the allegations against Cox as “rumors,” but days later released a statement as Archbishop of Santiago de Chile, where the now former priest was living, asking forgiveness for those hurt by the retired archbishop’s actions.
The statement, which was published by the Chilean bishops’ conference Nov. 5, 2002, also had Cox addressing the faithful of La Serena, saying: “I ask forgiveness for this dark side within me and which is against the Gospel.”
Though it’s widely believed he will soon be removed, Cardinal Errazuriz sits on the pope’s council of nine cardinal advisors. The Chilean cardinal has long been accused by survivors of having covered up for several pedophile priests.
On Oct. 7 Cox refused to answer questions from a Chilean news program, 24 Horas, saying that he couldn’t speak “in this time in which there is great confusion in Chile.”
Cox also said that the allegations he faces both in Chile and in Germany “are not my problem at this moment.”
Todays’ announcement brings to four the total of Chilean clergy to be laicized by Francis in the last month, although they’re the first two bishops. The other two are Cristian Pretch, a hero to the country’s left for the work he did in favor of human rights during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and Fernando Karadima, perhaps the country’s most infamous pedophile former priest, though many well-informed sources believe that despite the irreparable damage he’s caused, he is far from the “biggest monster” of the Chilean Church.