Pope Francis during his weekly general audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican on October 17, 2017
Silvia Lore—NurPhoto/ZUMA
By Ciara Nugent
October 18, 2018

An unusually frank statement from the Vatican announced on Oct. 13 that two retired Chilean bishops have been expelled from the priesthood for the “manifest abuse of minors.” Coming only a day after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of U.S. Cardinal Donald Wuerl over mismanaging past abuse cases, the move suggested that church leaders are recognizing the seriousness of the sprawling child-sex-abuse scandal–though it remains unclear whether the Pope will take the zero-tolerance stance that victims and advocates demand.

Blame Game

Over 100 clergy are under investigation in Chile, which has proved a weak point for Francis, the first Latin American Pope. In January, he caused an outcry by accusing victims of “slander.” Francis later apologized, saying he’d made “grave errors” with that reaction. In May, after a Vatican report alleged a cover-up, all 34 active Chilean bishops offered their resignations. So far, the Pope has accepted seven.

Saving the Church

Soon after his papacy began in 2013, Francis set up a commission to “protect minors.” The church has since removed several high-profile figures accused of abuse, including Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. But many were disappointed when Francis praised Wuerl’s “nobility” in resigning, and the commission has been criticized for toothlessness in pursuing those who ignored crimes.

After the fall

The abuse, which has also rocked Ireland, Spain, Germany and Australia in recent years, has shaken trust in the Catholic Church and contributed to its global decline in influence. (The percentage of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week has dropped in Europe from 37% in 1980 to 20% in 2012; in the Americas, it fell from 52% to 29%.) Pope Francis has called for an extraordinary conference on the issue to be held in February. The strategy he settles on there could define his papacy and the future of the church.

Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com.

This appears in the October 29, 2018 issue of TIME.

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