Theodore McCarrick, the 88-year-old former archbishop of Washington, was suspended from public ministry duties in June after a review board found there was “credible” evidence that he had assaulted a 16-year-old boy while working as a priest in New York in the early 1970s.
The Vatican said in a statement on Saturday that the pope had received a letter in which McCarrick presented his resignation as a member of the College of Cardinals.
“Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the cardinalate and has ordered his suspension from the exercise of any public ministry, together with the obligation to remain in a house yet to be indicated to him, for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial,” the statement added.
Kurt Martens, a canon law expert at Catholic University of America, said this was the first time an order of penance and prayer had been issued before a church trial takes place, according to The Associated Press news agency.
It is, at least in the Catholic Church in this country, an unprecedented rebuke to someone who was one of the most powerful men in the church. And again, still more punishments may follow, pending a canonical trial.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) July 28, 2018
McCarrick is one of the most prominent American cardinals active on the international stage and the charges make him one of the most high-profile Catholic leaders to face abuse claims.
The accusation against him was made public in June by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the current archbishop of New York.
Dolan said an independent forensic agency “thoroughly investigated” the allegation.
A review board that included jurists, law enforcement experts, parents, psychologists, a priest and a religious sister then “found the allegations credible and substantiated” and the Vatican ordered McCarrick to stop exercising his priestly ministry.
At the time, McCarrick released a statement maintaining his innocence but added that he “fully cooperated” in the investigation.
“While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence,” his statement read, “I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people”.
Over the past few years, the Catholic Church has been rocked by thousands of allegations of child sexual abuse by its clergy in many countries.
In Chile, a new investigation was launched earlier this week against 158 members of the Church – both clergymen and non-clerics – for perpetrating or concealing the sexual abuse of children and adults, according to AFP news agency.
The cases relate to incidents dating back as far as 1960 and involving 266 victims, including 178 children and adolescents.
Since 2000, about 80 Catholic priests have been reported to authorities in Chile for alleged sexual abuse.
In May, 34 Chilean bishops offered to resign over a different sexual abuse and cover-up.
In a letter to Chileans released in May, Pope Francis voiced “shame” that the Catholic Church failed “to listen and react in time” to the allegations of sexual abuse by Chilean clergy.