ROME — The Vatican announced Wednesday that it had removed two cardinals implicated in sexual abuse cases from a council of advisers picked by Pope Francis to guide him on matters critical to the future of the Catholic Church.
One is George Pell of Australia, who has been facing charges of sexual abuse of minors in proceedings that are subject to a gag order in that country, suppressing coverage until after they have concluded. The other is Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz of Chile, who has been accused of covering up abuse.
Members of the nine-member council of advisers, known as the C9, who met in Rome this week, had asked the pope to reflect on the “work, structure and composition of the council, taking into account the advanced age of some members.” According to a statement Wednesday by a Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, the pope had done just that.
Burke’s statement said the pope had written in October to both Pell and Errázuriz, and had concluded by “thanking them for their service” over the last five years.
The pope also dismissed a third cardinal, Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the 79-year-old archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
But Pell, 77, and Errázuriz, 85, the two other oldest members on the council, had much more than their age going against them.
In June, Francis granted a leave of absence to Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, so he could defend himself in Australia. He has been facing charges on child sexual offenses in the county court of Victoria.
He has been accused in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while he served as the leader of the archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. More accusations subsequently surfaced that he had sexually abused minors beginning early in his priesthood.
He has repeatedly denied the accusations, including during an extraordinary news conference in the Vatican last year, when he said, “I’d just like to restate my innocence.”
Errázuriz, the retired archbishop of Santiago, is well over the usual retirement age and had, along with the rest of the Chilean bishop’s conference, tendered his resignation to Francis in May.
Months earlier, during a trip to Chile and Peru, the pope had defended Chilean bishops against accusations of covering up abuse. That remark, and other missteps, led to an outcry among victims of sex abuse and their supporters, who considered the pope tone-deaf on an issue that has jeopardized his legacy.
The pope ultimately changed direction, dispatching his top sex abuse investigator to Chile and convening all the Chilean bishops at a meeting in Rome, where he accused them of mishandling and covering up an extensive child sexual abuse scandal in the country. They offered their resignations en masse.
Francis has accepted the resignation of several of the bishops so far, but not that of Errázuriz.
In September, Pope Francis defrocked — or “reduced to the lay state” — the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most infamous pedophile priest, seven years after a Vatican investigation relegated the priest to a life of “prayer and penance” for his sex crimes.
And in October, The Associated Press reported that some victims of Karadima had filed a criminal complaint against Errázuriz, accusing him of perjury, and of covering up Karadima’s crimes. The cardinal has denied he did so.
One of Karadima’s principal accusers, Juan Carlos Cruz, recounted in an interview this year that the Chilean cardinal had inferred that Cruz, who is gay, might have liked being molested, “so he wasn’t sure I was a victim.”
E-mails leaked in 2015 showed Errázuriz had tried to block Cruz from being appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which the pope had created in March 2014, to offer best practices for dealing with the issue.
Pope Francis is facing the greatest crisis of his pontificate as the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has exploded once again in countries around the world. In the United States, especially, civil authorities have more aggressively investigated abuse in the church, including widespread abuse in Pennsylvania over decades.
Attorneys general in about 16 states have undertaken their own investigations.
In August, the pope’s former ambassador to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused him of knowing about the inappropriate behavior of a former American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who resigned as a cardinal in July and was ordered by the pope to a life of prayer and penance.
Opponents to Pope Francis have seized on the accusations, which have until now been unsubstantiated, to weaken the 81-year-old pontiff.