Pope Francis accepts resignation of United States cardinal

Cardinal Donald Wuerl has resigned

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington DC, the Vatican said.

Wuerl's simultaneous resignation and rehabilitation by the pope is likely to enrage conservative Catholics who have been using the sexual abuse scandal to try to bring down prelates close to Francis.

Wuerl, 77, who was bishop of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 2006, was blamed for not doing enough to deal with paedophile priests, and instead covering up the scandal in the state of Pennsylvania.

A Pennsylvania grand jury found in August that more 300 Catholic priests sexually abused at least 1,000 children over the last 70 years and church leaders did all they could to cover it up.

The report said he had allowed accused priests to be reassigned or reinstated.

Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, technically tendered his resignation upon reaching age 75, as all Catholic bishops and cardinals do. A spokesman for Cardinal Wuerl confirmed to CNA Sept. 12 that the cardinal meant to formally ask Pope Francis to allow him to step down.

"However", the letter continued, "your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense".

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"My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you, the people of the Church of Washington", he said.

The auxiliary bishops of Washington also released a statement Friday, saying the cardinal's "pastoral and spiritual leadership in the archdiocese is well appreciated". That session is expected to focus on the fallout of the recent sexual abuse crises, and the cardinal was said to want to play an active part in helping the Church respond. "I also beg forgiveness on behalf of church leadership from the victims who were again wounded when they saw these priests and bishops both moved and promoted". He had been accused of sexually abusing several people, including children. In his first months as bishop, after the priests were charged with more than 100 counts of abuse, he formed a review board at the diocese level.

FILE PHOTO: Cardinal Donald William Wuerl from US waves as he arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican March 7, 2013.

Francis' praise for Wuerl alarmed advocates for abuse survivors, who said it was evidence of the clerical culture Francis himself denounces in which the church hierarchy consistently protects its own. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1966 and went on to receive a doctorate in 1974.

Finally, it's important to say this: If Pope Francis's letter today makes anything clear, it's that he hasn't lost any respect or esteem for Wuerl - if anything, he appears to hold him in even higher regard for the "nobility" of his exit. In the three-page letter, he accused Archbishop Vigano of starting a "political frame job devoid of real foundation" adding that the claims against the pontiff were "calumny and defamation". "This is the lightest possible slap on the wrist for Bishop Wuerl, and he's not leaving in his role as administrator as the Archbishop of Washington".

For the last five years, Wuerl has also been the single most important voice within the USA hierarchy defending Pope Francis, at a time when some other American bishops and Catholic leaders have struck discordant notes. He said Wuerl's resignation is "long overdue".

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