VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis has accepted U.S. prelate Theodore McCarrick's offer to resign from the College of Cardinals following allegations of sexual abuse, including one involving an 11-year-old boy, and ordered him to conduct a "life of prayer and penance" in a home to be designated by the pontiff until a church trial is held, the Vatican said Saturday.
Francis acted swiftly after receiving McCarrick's letter of resignation Friday evening, after recent weeks have brought a spate of allegations that the 88-year-old prelate in the course of his distinguished clerical career had sexually abused both boys and adult seminarians. The revelations posed a test of the pontiff's recently declared resolve to battle what he called a "culture of cover-up" of similar abuse in the Catholic's church's hierarchy.
McCarrick had been already removed from public ministry since June 20, pending a full investigation into allegations he fondled a teenager over 40 years ago in New York City. A man, who was 11 at the time of the first alleged instance of abuse, says a sexually abusive relationship continued for two more decades. McCarrick has denied the initial allegation.
The prelate rose steadily up the U.S. Church's ranks, from auxiliary bishop in New York City, to bishop in Metuchen, New Jersey, to archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, and then to Archbishop of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, the city where the papal ambassador to the United States is based.
While most of the scandals involving pedophile clergy have involved rank-and-file priests, some cases involved bishops, and there are a few involving cardinals, including a current case in Australia of one of Pope Francis' closest advisers, Cardinal George Pell, who now faces a criminal trial in his homeland.
In the case of Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, accused by former seminarians in 2013 of sexual misconduct, Francis only accepted his resignation after the Vatican's top abuse prosecutor conducted a full investigation, two years after the first revelations came out.
But the Holy See's announcement about McCarrick said that Francis was taking action, by isolating McCarrick and ordering penance even before "accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial." In addition, Francis, "ordered his suspension from the exercise of any public ministry," indicating he was approving the measure already in effect since last month.
A Catholic University canon law expert, Kurt Martens, noted that this was the first time an order of penance and prayer had been issued before a church trial could take place.
Since he is over 80, McCarrick was already no longer eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a pope. But being a "prince of the church," as cardinals are sometimes called, is a top honor of the church, and those elevated to that rank are called upon to advise the pope.
Bishops have been implicated in the sexual abuse scandals that have stained the Catholic church's reputation worldwide for decades now, but often for their roles in covering up for pedophile priests by shuffling them from parish to parish and keeping the faithful in the dark about the allegations about clergy whose pastoral duties often bring them into contact with minors.
Earlier this month, an Australia bishop became the most senior Roman Catholic cleric to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse. Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson was sentenced to 12 months in detention by an Australian court in a landmark case welcomed by some abuse survivors as a strong warning to institutions that fail to protect children.
Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.