By Antonio De la Jara and Aislinn Laing
(Reuters) - Chile's most senior cleric has apologised for the "tension" affecting the country's Roman Catholic Church after five bishops resigned in a sexual abuse scandal that has prompted a major civil investigation.
Ricardo Ezzati, the Archbishop of Santiago, told colleagues at an internal church event on Tuesday that the Catholic church was facing a "completely unprecedented situation," according to the text of his speech posted on the archbishopric's website.
"The terms to describe this situation are well-known: pain, shame, anger, indignation, tension," he said.
"We are living in a tense time within the country and the Church. We have contributed to that tension with our problems and our crimes."
Ezzati was due to be questioned as a suspect by a civil prosecutor this month in the alleged cover-up of sex abuse in the Chilean Catholic church, but his lawyers have requested more time to prepare.
The Chilean catholic church scandal, in which prosecutors say hundreds of children could have been abused, has been echoed worldwide in the biggest crisis of Pope Francis' career.
This week, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal envoy in Washington from 2011 to 2016, published a letter in which he claimed the pope had known for years of allegations of sex abuse by a prominent U.S. cardinal, and called on him to resign.
"It wasn't news," Ezzati said in response to the claims. "It is not difficult to find brothers of faith, priests, laity members who openly denounce their bishops, their brother priests.
"Bishops accused of cover-up, on crimes, laity who declare themselves to be the Church and say they don't need pastors. However, without a doubt all of these things tell us that we need some time and spiritual wisdom to be able to discern what has happened."
The crisis has gripped Chile's Catholic Church since 2011, when Chilean priest Fernando Karadima was found guilty by the Vatican of abusing children in the 1970s and 1980s. The allegations prompted a probe that has led to the ousting of bishops and other priests.
All of Chile's 34 bishops offered to resign en masse in May after attending a meeting with the pope over allegations of a cover-up.
A Vatican official said after resignations of three Chilean bishops in June that the pope was considering the positions of the other prelates.
Chilean civil authorities have said they are investigating 36 accusations against bishops, clerics and lay workers in the Church, from among 144 reports of sexual abuse implicating 158 Church workers made since 2000.
(Reporting by Antonio de la Jara and Aislinn Laing; Editing by Richard Chang)