Police and prosecutors raid several places to seize documents relating to mounting claims of sexual abuse and cover-up involving 14 priests, officials say.
Police and prosecutors raided Roman Catholic Church offices in two Chilean cities on Wednesday looking for files, investigative reports and documents related to a sex abuse scandal that has damaged the clergy's reputation in the South American country.
The surprise raids targeted the headquarters of Santiago's Ecclesiastical Court and the bishop's office in Rancagua in the O'Higgins region, where 14 priests are accused of having had sexual relations with minors.
"In Chile, we are all subject to common justice," said prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who led the raid in Santiago.
Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, said church officials "gave the prosecutor all the requested documentation."
He added that they are "available to cooperate with the civilian justice system in all that is required."
The judicial authorities are reportedly investigating "at least 40" cases of Church abuse across the country.
Avalanche of sex abuse
In May, all of Chile's 30-plus active bishops offered to quit over their collective guilt in failing to protect Chile's children from priests who raped, groped and molested them.
Wednesday's raids came as two leading Vatican investigators — Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu — are in Chile to investigate the sexual abuse of minors committed by clergy.
Scicluna and Bertomeu earlier put together a 2,300-page report that prompted Pope Francis to realise he had misjudged the Chilean situation.
On Monday, Francis began purging Chile's Catholic hierarchy over the avalanche of sex abuse and cover-up cases, starting with accepting the resignations of the bishop at the center of the scandal and two others.
More heads were expected to roll.
A Vatican statement on Monday said Francis had accepted the resignations of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Bishop Gonzalo Duarte of Valparaiso and Bishop Cristian Caro of Puerto Montt. He named a temporary leader for each diocese.
Today begins a new day for the Catholic Church in Chile and hopefully the world. @Pontifex has started the firing of bishops who are abusers or have covered up. We hope this is the beginning of the end of this culture of abuse and cover up in the Church. Emotional but great day!— Juan Carlos Cruz Ch. (@jccruzchellew) June 11, 2018
Barros, 61, has been at the center of Chile's growing scandal ever since Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno in 2015 over the objections of the local faithful, the pope's own sex abuse prevention advisers and some of Chile's other bishops.
The report exposed evidence that the Chilean hierarchy systematically covered up and minimised abuse cases, destroying evidence of sex crimes, pressuring church investigators to discredit abuse accusations and showing "grave negligence" in protecting children from pedophile priests.
Those findings opened a Pandora's Box of new accusations that led Francis to become the first pope to refer to a "culture of abuse and cover-up" in the Catholic Church.
Raids reminiscent of old cases
The raids in Chile were reminiscent of the police search carried out in 2010 at the headquarters of the Catholic Church hierarchy in Belgium, which prompted Pope Benedict XVI to intervene and protest the "deplorable" intrusion in the Catholic Church's legal process.
Belgian police took away computers and hundreds of files amid rumors that church leaders were continuing to cover up abuse cases.
The raid prompted a Catholic panel investigating abuse to shut down in protest, saying Belgian authorities had betrayed the trust of nearly 500 victims who made complaints to the panel.