With the resignation, Wuerl becomes the most prominent Catholic head to roll since his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, was forced to resign as cardinal this year over allegations he sexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.
Cardinal Wuerl has said until the Archdiocese of NY began investigating the claims that Archbishop McCarrick abused a minor, he was never informed of such accusations or even the rumors of Archbishop McCarrick's sexual harassment of seminarians.
A Vatican statement Friday said Francis had accepted Wuerl's resignation, but named no immediate replacement.
"Your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence. Of this, I am proud and thank you", the pope wrote.
Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, initially played down the grand jury report and defended his own record, but eventually concluded he should no longer lead the archdiocese.
Cardinal Wuerl asked the priests "for prayers for me, for forgiveness for my errors in judgment, for my inadequacies and also for your acceptance of my contrition for any suffering I have caused, as well as the grace to find, with you, ways of healing, ways of offering fruitful guidance in this darkness". The Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to restore Cipolla to priestly ministry, but Wuerl resisted and, after two years of legal procedures, prevailed in preventing Cipolla's return.
In a glowing letter of support, Francis made clear that he accepted Wuerl's resignation reluctantly, at Wuerl's insistence, and believed he was not guilty of trying to hide abuse.
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In the Grand Jury report, state investigators focussed on Cardinal Wuerl's record as Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 depicting his actions as a mix between taking bold action and being obfuscatory. He also sought an extension to the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases in canon law. Known as a key ally of Pope Francis, Wuerl sits on the Vatican committee that vets and appoints bishops around the world.
Wuerl's archdiocese issued a series of similar plaudits on Friday, coinciding with the Vatican announcement. He said Wuerl's resignation is "long overdue". 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.
"Despite the things that have been spoken about, he did a heck of a lot to address the issue of sexual abuse", Bishop David Zubik said. He said bishops were under attack from the "great accuser", another name for Satan.
But other observers counter that the question of whether Cardinal Wuerl should step down goes beyond his individual guilt or innocence in Pittsburgh. They argue he should resign because he was part of an episcopal establishment that failed to protect the Church's most vulnerable members. "Whether people want to defend him or not for Pittsburgh, the Church has still been severely damaged". Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, has said in a letter to his diocese from July that he has "zero tolerance for sexual abuse" and that any victims should come forward "without fear of retribution, no matter the status of the perpetrator".
Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh, attended Catholic University in Washington and received a doctorate in theology from the University of Saint Thomas in Rome.
Cardinal Wuerl's episcopal career appears to be ending in as much controversy as it began when he became an auxiliary bishop in Seattle in 1986.