Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington, DC, making him one of the most senior Catholic figures to step down amid a worldwide sexual abuse crisis.
Wuerl, 77, who was bishop of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 2006, was blamed for not doing enough to deal with paedophile priests, instead covering up the scandal in the state of Pennsylvania.
However, in his letter to Wuerl released on Friday, the pope praised his longtime ally and suggested he had unfairly become a scapegoat, having made some “mistakes” in handling sex abuse cases, but not having covered them up.
“However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you,” the pope wrote. “Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church.”
Francis also asked Wuerl to stay on as administrator until another archbishop is appointed. He keeps the title of cardinal.
Wuerl called the pope’s letter a “very, very beautiful” recognition and noted that this decision will “permit this local church to move forward.”
He also apologised for “past errors in judgment” and asked for “pardon”.
“My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you the people of the Church of Washington,” the cardinal said in a letter.
#Breaking | Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of @Cardinal_Wuerl as Archbishop of Washington. Read the Cardinal’s full statement and the letter from @Pontifex here: https://t.co/XQGnJFRw62. pic.twitter.com/NYZP2yg6Ba
— DC Archdiocese (@WashArchdiocese) October 12, 2018
Wuerl has been under fire since the release in August of a US Grand Jury report on sexual abuse found evidence that at least 1,000 people, mostly children, had been sexually abused by some 300 clergymen over the course of 70 years.
The report is thought to be the most comprehensive to date into abuse in the US church, and it covered six dioceses in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh.
Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006, is repeatedly cited as one of the church leaders who helped to cover up the scandal and he has faced numerous calls for his resignation, including from his own clergy.
The cardinal has also been accused of knowing about sexual misconduct by his predecessor in Washington, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Wuerl has defended his overall record in Pittsburgh, insisting he had a good past record, but progressively came to the conclusion that he could no longer lead the archdiocese.
In July, McCarrick became the first cardinal in about 100 years to be stripped of his red hat and title of “eminence”.