STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Pope Francis has accepted the resignations of three bishops in Chile over the church's long-running sex abuse scandal. Joshua McElwee, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has been covering this story in Rome. He joins us via Skype. Hey there, Joshua.
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Hey, good to be with you.
INSKEEP: So why these three? What did they do?
MCELWEE: Well, it appears that the big resignation that the pope accepted today was of a bishop in the Diocese of Osorno named Juan Barros Madrid. He's a controversial prelate whose sexual abuse victims say had witnessed in the 1980s and '90s another priest abuse them. The pope appointed him in 2015. He faced a great uproar over that appointment. And then in January, the pope was in Chile. He defended the bishop, said the accusations against him were calumny, and now today kind of came around and decided to accept his resignation.
INSKEEP: This has been a while coming - right? - this change of heart. Didn't the pope also apologize for defending the bishop and offer to meet with victims of sex abuse from Chile?
MCELWEE: It's really been an extraordinary turnabout the last couple of months. The pope wrote a letter to the Chilean Catholic Church admitting he had made serious mistakes - called all the country's bishops to Rome, met with them wherein they presented him with their resignations. We're waiting to see what he does with the rest of those resignations. And the pope had two meetings with abuse victims in - at the Vatican. It's really been an extraordinary few months here for Pope Francis.
INSKEEP: So you make a good point that all 31 active bishops in Chile offered to resign. So far the pope has accepted three of the resignations, and you say we don't know what's going to happen with the others. I want to dwell on something that you just discussed there, though. The pope has said he was wrong, has expressed contrition. How remarkable is it for the pope to say - for any pope to say, I was wrong; I apologize; I seek forgiveness; I want to fix this?
MCELWEE: I think it's extraordinary. I don't think we've seen something like this at least in the modern era. Previous popes have apologized for the abuse scandal but never really apologized for something they had done personally. This pope apologizing for what he had said in Chile and then bringing all the bishops here is a really extraordinary move. And then also to meet with abuse victims who described the meetings with him as incredibly personal - that he asked for forgiveness on his own behalf and really kind of fell on the sword and said how wrong he had been.
INSKEEP: Are there direct accusations against the other 28 whose resignations have not yet been accepted? Or is it just that they were around and did not do as much as they should have, or they're feeling responsible in some way?
MCELWEE: Well, there are several other bishops who are accused of covering up for this priest in the 1980s and '90s. There's no other resignations today from those bishops. What the pope has said, though, in a recent letter to the entire people of Chile was that there was a culture of abuse and cover-up in the country's church - a shocking admission, the first time a pope has talked about a culture of cover-up in the Catholic Church. And so it looks like he's really evaluating not only did these bishops abuse people, but did they cover up those who were abusing? And if they did, how they should be handled?
INSKEEP: A bigger issue - not just punishing those responsible but asking about the culture then.
MCELWEE: Really getting to the root of power in the Catholic Church. He even talked about in that letter to the countries - to the people of Chile that they need to empower laypeople to make them able to kind of say no to abuse and confront bishops who aren't acting appropriately.
INSKEEP: Joshua, thanks as always.
INSKEEP: Joshua McElwee, the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.