Thirty-four Chilean bishops announced their resignation Friday over a child sex abuse scandal within the Church in Chile that has come to haunt the reign of Pope Francis.
"We, all the bishops present in Rome, have tendered our resignation to the Holy Father so that he may decide freely for each of us," the bishops said in a statement after three days of intense meetings with Francis at the Vatican.
"We want to ask forgiveness for the pain caused to the victims, to the Pope, to God's people and to our country for the serious errors and omissions we have committed," the statement continued.
The striking announcement came after the pontiff summoned the bishops over the scandal.
Several members of the Chilean church hierarchy are accused by victims of ignoring and covering up child abuse by Chilean paedophile priest Fernando Karadima during the 1980s and 1990s.
On Thursday evening, Francis promised "changes" to the Chilean church to "restore justice" in a short declaration to the bishops, made public.
But in a confidential 10-page document leaked Friday by Chilean TV channel T13, the Argentine pope goes much further in his indictment of the Chilean Church.
The letter -- handed to the bishops at the start of their meetings with Francis -- evokes "crimes" and "painful and shameful sexual abuse of minors, abuses of power and conscience by ministers of the Church".
It qualifies the removal of certain prelates from their roles as necessary but "insufficient," calling for "the roots" that allowed for such abuse within an "elitist and authoritarian" Chilean Church to be examined.
- Evidence destroyed -
The damning letter also outlines findings of an investigation, ordered by Pope Francis, into the abuse allegations.
It says the probe found senior Church officials had destroyed proof in cases of sex abuse and that certain members of the clergy who had displayed immoral behaviour had been transferred to other dioceses after attempts to "minimise" the gravity of their actions.
Grave accusations "were superficially qualified as improbable", the letter says, denouncing bishops for their "terrible negligence in protecting children".
Pope Francis bids to repair some of the damage done during his visit to Chile in January, when his defence of controversial Chilean bishop Juan Barros -- accused of covering up Karadima's abuses -- caused a public outcry.
The pontiff at the time said he was convinced that Barros was innocent and demanded "proof" before he would speak out against him.
Francis later apologised to the victims, three of whom he recently received at the Vatican, and admitted he had made "grave mistakes" after reading the 2,300-page report on the abuse in Chile.
The mass resignation of an entire delegation of bishops is almost unheard of, having last happened two centuries ago.
Bishops have, however, previously been summoned to the Vatican over abuse scandals.
In April 2002, Pope John Paul II summoned 13 American cardinals and bishops to Rome after a huge paedophilia scandal within the clergy. Following another abuse scandal in Ireland in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI also organised a meeting of Irish prelates at the Vatican in February 2010.
- 'Their day has come' -
Speaking at the Vatican Friday morning, the Chilean bishops said: "We thank the victims for their perseverance and courage, despite the enormous personal, spiritual, social and family difficulties they had to face, to which were often added the incomprehension and attacks of the Church community."
Two of Karadima's victims tweeted their relief on Twitter in response to the resignations.
"Those who caused so much pain, sometimes worse than the abuse, are now all quitting. The Pope heard what we asked of him in our conversations with survivors from all over the world. For those who did so much damage, their day has come today," wrote Juan Carlos Cruz.
Similarly Jose Andres Murillo tweeted: "For dignity, justice and truth: all the bishops leave. Criminals. They failed to protect the weakest, exposed them to abuse and then prevented justice. So, they just deserve to leave."