In this September 23, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., left, looks toward the crowd with Pope Francis after a Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Wuerl's resignation comes in the wake of a barrage of allegations that he mishandled and covered up instances of criminal sexual abuse by priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh, from 1988-2006.
These "mistakes" were in actuality crimes, and Wuerl's name was mentioned 169 times in the Pennsylvania grand jury report published in August.
The 77-year-old cardinal, the sixth archbishop of Washington, had submitted his resignation, as is mandatory, to the pope when he turned 75, but it had not been accepted until now. However, Wuerl will remain a Cardinal and a close advisor to the pope.
"However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence".
"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.
"As a catechist, I think he really appreciated the precision of Pope Benedict's language, and as a shepherd, he really appreciated the emphasis on the personal encounter of Pope Francis", said Susan Timoney, an associate professor of pastoral studies at the Catholic University of America. "We can't rely on the church to fix itself". He gave an interview to a local television station, saying that the cases had occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, before the church had developed clear policies on clergy sexual abuse. Years later, according to the report, six more people alleged that they were sexually assaulted by O'Malley, in some cases after he had been reinstated.
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Born in Pittsburgh on November 12, 1940, Wuerl was ordained a priest in 1966 and later served as secretary to Pittsburgh Bishop John Wright, even following him to Rome when the bishop was named head of the Vatican's clergy dicastery and made a cardinal.
On Saturday, Francis ordered an investigation into the Vatican archives over the allegations.
Edward McFadden, a spokesman for Wuerl, said that during the cardinal's 12 years in Washington, "not a single priest of the Archdiocese of Washington has faced a credible claim, and there is not today a single priest in ministry in Washington who has faced a credible claim".
In 1993, when John Paul II was pope, Wuerl traveled to Rome, where he successfully persuaded the Vatican to overturn the reinstatement of an abusive priest.
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'll be in charge in the DC archdiocese until the Vatican appoints a new archbishop to replace him.
The report is thought to be the most comprehensive to date into abuse in the USA church, and it covered six diocese in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh.
"A number of dioceses across the world called to ask if they could use part or all of the plan", Timoney said.
De Souza hopes that Wuerl's resignation will help cleanse clerical culture of "one of its most serious vices, the failure to tell the truth".