Pope Francis on Thursday accepted the resignation of a U.S. bishop accused of sexually harassing adults, just ahead of discussing wide-ranging sexual abuse allegations in the American church with U.S. Catholic leaders.
The resignation of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield came just as the top leaders in U.S. church sat down with the pontiff to consider the burgeoning scandal that has rocked the church in several countries. Bransfield will now face a Vatican investigation.
Meanwhile, Chilean authorities raided four dioceses Thursday as part of their investigation into clerical sex abuse of minors and alleged cover-ups by bishops. Local media showed investigators walking out of church offices after seizing documents.
In Rome, the leader of the U.S. church, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, said he and other Catholic leaders "shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States — how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse."
DiNardo said Francis "listened very deeply from the heart. It was a lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange." But DiNardo did not say what steps U.S. church leaders might take, if any, to address the sex abuse allegations in the U.S. church.
DiNardo, a prelate in the southwestern U.S. state of Texas, said the church leaders prayed "together for God's mercy and strength as we work to heal the wounds. We look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps."
Bransfield's resignation comes weeks after Francis removed Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington after allegations surfaced that he had abused a teenage altar boy in the 1970s and other seminarians and young priests. Vatican critics say Francis had credible information about McCarrick for years but did not confront McCarrick about the allegations.
The Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, has called for the pope step down in the wake of his failure to act against McCarrick until recently.
Even as DiNardo met with Francis, two people accused DiNardo of failing to do enough to stop abuse by a priest in his Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston who was arrested this week on sexual abuse charges.
One of the accusers said DiNardo promised her that the priest would be removed from any contact with children, only to find out later that he had been reassigned to another church 112 kilometers away. The two people accusing DiNardo of failing to act are cooperating with police in their investigation.
Pope Francis has summoned bishops from around the world to a February summit to discuss the sexual abuse allegations against priests and other church leaders and evidence that church leaders have often covered up the accusations rather than disclosing them and reporting them to legal authorities.
In the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania, a grand jury recently concluded that more than 300 parish priests had abused at least 1,000 young people over a period of 70 years. Prosecutors in a handful of other states have opened similar investigations.