ROME – Still struggling to overcome one of the world’s most anguished clerical abuse crises, Chile’s bishops in their Lenten message once again apologized to those abused and mistreated by members of the clergy.

Lent, the bishops write in a message released Monday, is a time of conversion, during which the Church issues an invitation to renew faith and hope, welcoming God’s love and mercy.

“It is also a time of purification and penance for the pain we have caused for our faults and sins,” they wrote. “The pastors of the Church ask forgiveness once again from God and our brothers and sisters who have been abused, mistreated, excluded or ignored by some of their ministers. A sincere conversion only springs from a heart that is repentant and willing to heal the damage caused, accompany the wounded on their way, and start over from Christ.”

Though long simmering under the surface, the clerical abuse crisis in Chile erupted in 2015, when Pope Francis appointed a bishop mentored by Fernando Karadima, who was removed from the priesthood in 2018 after being found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexually abusing seminarians.

The appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the southern diocese of Osorno proved controversial, and Francis’ public defense of the prelate during his Jan. 2018 visit to Chile caused an outcry from victims of sexual abuse and their advocates, but also from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The uproar was such that the pontiff decided to dispatch the Vatican’s chief expert on priestly sexual abuse of minors, Maltese Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu. The two produced a report of over 2,000 pages that convinced the pontiff he was in the wrong. He summoned the Chilean bishops to Rome, who presented their resignations. Six months later, he had accepted the resignations of seven, and several more would follow.

This frame taken from video provided by the CTV Vatican television Thursday, May 17, 2018, Pope Francis poses for a picture with Chilean Bishops during a meeting at the Vatican. The Bishops announced at the end of the emergency summit over a sex abuse and cover-up scandal held with Pope Francis that all 31 active bishops and three retired ones in Rome had signed a document offering to resign and putting their fate in the hands of the pope. (Credit: CTV via AP.)

Since then, civil authorities launched investigations into several Chilean bishops, both under allegations of cover up and of sexual abuse, with at least two bishops being publicly accused of sexually abusing seminarians. Last week, the prosecutor’s office dismissed a case against Bishop Carlos Pellegrín over allegations of sexual abuse. However, retired Bishop Gonzalo Duarte of Valparaiso is still being investigated for alleged abuses in his seminary.

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In their Lenten message the bishops also speak about the challenges faced by the COVID-19 pandemic, that will mean most of the faithful will be unable to physically take part in many of the liturgical celebration of this time of preparation leading to Easter, starting with Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17 for Latin rite Catholics.

“The last year has been difficult for everyone,” the bishops wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted our fragility.”

Many lives were lost, and many others suffered the serious social consequences of the coronavirus. Yet, amidst these dramatic situations, “we give thanks to God for the countless expressions of fraternal solidarity, charity and closeness of relatives, neighbors and friends, as well as the professional commitment of those who work serving the sick in hospitals and health centers.”

The bishops thanked priests, deacons, religious men and women and laity who have tried to accompany with the sacraments, prayer and consolation in this time of uncertainty.

Added to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bishops write, there have been situations of violence in the Chilean society, “which is expressed in the terrible loss of human life, attacks on people, houses, public offices, means of transport and even places of worship of different religious confessions.”

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In addition, there’s an increase flow of migrants in the country’s northern region- particularly from people fleeing the social and political crisis of Venezuela- and society as a whole, the prelates argued, cannot ignore the “human drama experienced by each of these people.”

The bishops also wrote that this time has brought “various types of deprivation,” including socialization, expressions of affection and even resting. The season of let offers believers the possibility of returning to what is essential in the life of those who have faith: putting Christ at the center.

“Fasting, prayer and almsgiving allow us to open our hearts to the newness of Christ,” they wrote.

The bishops also urged Chileans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, saying it “opens a window of hope to being to overcome together this grave pandemic,” noting that there are no reasons to suspect that the vaccines will be a risk to people’s health or that their use is morally reproachable.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma