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LONDON — Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who last month became one of the highest-ranking Americans to be removed from public ministry because of sex abuse allegations, has resigned from the College of Cardinals in the Vatican.
Pope Francis accepted the resignation and ordered McCarrick — the former head of the Archdiocese of Washington and a well-known religious figure around the world — to observe a life of prayer and penance in seclusion, according to a statement released by the Holy See on Saturday.
The statement said he was obliged to "remain in a house yet to be indicated to him ... until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial."
The announcement follows the Vatican’s decision last month to remove McCarrick from public ministry in light of allegations of sexual abuse involving a minor while he was working as a priest in New York. After his removal, Roman Catholic Church officials in New Jersey revealed that the 88-year-old cardinal had also been accused of sexual misconduct by adults three times in the past. Two of those accusations resulted in secret settlements, officials said.
The allegations posed a test for Francis who, earlier this year, became the first the pontiff to denounce a "culture of abuse and cover-up" in the Catholic Church. In a letter to the Chilean faithful in May, the pontiff thanked victims for their "valiant perseverance" in searching for the truth.
In response to the announcements last month, McCarrick denied wrongdoing and said he was “shocked” when he learned of the allegation involving a minor some months ago. He added that he supported a thorough investigation by the police and the Archdiocese of New York.
However, a church statement said that McCarrick, who was archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006 and participated in the selection of the current pope as a cardinal, was appealing the finding through the canonical process.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in a statement that the archdiocese knew of only one complaint against McCarrick involving a minor. Law enforcement officials and an independent forensic agency thoroughly investigated it before a review board within the archdiocese reviewed the results and found the claim "credible and substantiated," he said.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said in a statement that he had also ordered a review of McCarrick's records, but had found that no claim "credible or otherwise" had been made against McCarrick during his time in Washington.
McCarrick rose through the U.S. church ranks, serving as as an auxiliary bishop in New York, a bishop in Metuchen, New Jersey, and archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, before becoming Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
In New Jersey, where McCarrick served between 1981 and 2001, a statement from Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin disclosed that the church knew of other claims.
"In the past, there have been allegations that he engaged in sexual behavior with adults," Tobin said in a statement. "This archdiocese and the Diocese of Metuchen received three allegations of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago; two of these allegations resulted in settlements."
The Newark Archdiocese refused to provide any details, including when the misconduct was reported, citing "confidentiality."
It remained unclear whether church higher-ups knew of any allegations against McCarrick when he was appointed head of the Washington archdiocese.
President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo thanked the pope for his leadership in accepting McCarrick's resignation.
"It reflects the priority the Holy Father places on the need for protection and care for all our people and the way failures in this area affect the life of the Church in the United States," he said in a statement on Saturday.
Many of the scandals involving sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have involved rank-and-file priests, but some cases have involved bishops and cardinals.
Earlier this month, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse was sentenced to 12 months in detention by an Australian court. Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson was found guilty in May of failing to report to police the repeated abuse of two altar boys by pedophile priest James Fletcher in a region north of Sydney in the 1970s.
Francis' former finance minister, Australian Cardinal George Pell has also been accused of sexually abusing multiple victims decades ago. In May, an Australian magistrate in a preliminary hearing dismissed around half of the charges against Pell, but decided that the prosecution's case was strong enough for the remainder to warrant a trial by jury.