ROME – Members of the Mexican clergy, including bishops, “covered up” child sexual abuse for years, according to Pope Francis’s envoy in the world’s second most populous Catholic country, who called those crimes “psychological murder.”

“It’s a terrible tragedy of which perhaps we were once not aware,” said Italian Archbishop Franco Coppola. “Every time I meet with victims, I realize how true what Pope Francis said is: (abuse) is a psychological murder.”

After having spoken with several victims of abuse, Coppola said child sexual abuse “is worse than murder” because it leaves lifelong consequences such as “difficulty in relating to other people.”

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“I think there wasn’t as much awareness of what was happening to these people. Thanks to those who have revealed what was done to them, we’ve become aware of this and adopted the pope’s stance of zero tolerance,” he said.

More than 271 priests in Mexico have been accused of sexual abuse, including the late Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who died in disgrace, having been found guilty by the Vatican of leading a double life, abusing dozens of minors, including his own children.

“I seriously think that there were people who covered up with bad intentions,” Coppola told the Spanish news agency Efe. “I want to think that there were also people who covered up without realizing how serious it was.”

The prelate told Efe that he’d began facing the “situation of abuse” when he first arrived in Mexico at the end of 2016, and that he had not had the “opportunity to encounter any such case” in the other countries where he was stationed. Before Mexico, he had been in Burundi, Central African Republic and Chad.

Mexico has the world’s second largest Catholic population, after Brazil.

According to Mexican church data, 271 members of the clergy were accused of abusing children in the past decade. Of these allegations, 103 have been dismissed from the clerical state, 45 have not been suspended and 123 are still being investigated.

Several observers have pointed out in recent years that the situation of the Catholic Church in Mexico when it comes to abuse is similar, if not even worse, than that of Chile, which back in 2018 saw all its bishops present their resignations to the pope after accusations of widespread cover up and even abuse by several prelates.

After sending Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spaniard Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu to investigate the allegations, the pope summoned the Chilean bishops to Rome, and promptly accepted the resignation of 30 percent of the episcopacy. However, activists continue to clamor for transparency, as no reason was given when the resignations of several bishops under the mandatory retirement age of 75 were accepted.

In March 2020, Francis dispatched the same investigative team to Mexico. However, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from going, and the “postponed” visit has yet to materialize.

Sources in Mexico told Crux that, despite coronavirus being the official reason given for delaying the investigation, some Mexican bishops had voiced opposition to the Scicluna and Bertomeu mission. Scicluna was the top prosecutor in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and led the investigation against Maciel.

Observers from both Mexico and the Vatican have told Crux they estimate some fifty percent of bishops in the country have mishandled abuse allegations, and some continue to do so today.

Among those who acknowledge cover-up on the part of Mexican bishops is Archbishop Rogelio Cabrera Lopez, president of the bishops’ conference, who in late 2019 told a conference organized by CEPROME, the center for child protection of Mexico’s Pontifical University, that “we bishops need to acknowledge the mistakes of the past: We weren’t conscious of the seriousness of the issue, and the solutions we gave weren’t the right ones.”

He also said that every bishop who has served for more than ten years needs to come forward and acknowledge they made mistakes when handling abuse allegations.

Coppola told Efe that the delegation will arrive in Mexico “when the problem” of the pandemic is over, insisting that “the effort” of the Mexican Bishops Conference “has not stopped.”

“A great part of the dioceses already have commissions for the protection of minors and the Bishops Conference has been in charge of training them,” said the nuncio.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma