The former Archbishop of Washington, accused of sexually abusing adults and minors for decades, has become the first cardinal in history to step down due to sexual abuse allegations.
Theodore McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals, magnifying the abuse crisis that Pope Francis is grappling with around the globe.
News of the resignation of McCarrick, a longtime globe-trotting diplomat for the Catholic Church and a public face for efforts to end clergy sexual abuse, has rocked the local Catholic community and the wider church.
Pope Francis ordered McCarrick to remain in seclusion, and in prayer, until a church trial considers further sanctions.
McCarrick's fall is "gut-wrenching" for local Catholics, said John Gehring, a Catholic author who worked for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops while McCarrick led the Washington archdiocese.
"Most Catholics, including myself, are just sickened by the fact that it seems like so much was known about his behaviour, and he still climbed the ranks of the church. He never should have been made a cardinal. ... It can never happen again."
McCarrick, 88, was found by the church in June to be credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager nearly 50 years ago.
Since then, additional reports of sexual abuse and harassment by the cardinal, over a span of decades, have been reported.
The additional victims include one then-minor and three adults, who were young priests or seminarians when McCarrick allegedly abused them.
McCarrick is the highest ranked US Catholic clergy member to ever be removed from ministry due to sexual abuse allegations, and the first cardinal to fully resign his position since 1927.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, from Scotland, renounced the rights and privileges of his position after a string of accusations in 2013 about sexual misconduct. But he did not officially depart the College of Cardinals, and Pope Francis only accepted O'Brien's resignation two years after the allegations came out.
One of Francis' closest advisers, Cardinal George Pell, is the highest-ranking Catholic in the world to be charged in the church's global abuse scandal. The 77-year-old faces trial in Australia on decades-old child sex abuse allegations. Pell has denied wrongdoing. Details of the allegations haven't been made public.
The Vatican said McCarrick will face a canonical trial, though it did not provide details about when the trial would be conducted.
Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at Catholic University, noted that the Catholic church has typically punished people by ordering them to conduct a life of "prayer and penance."
In McCarrick's case, the Vatican has imposed that penalty before the trial has even started - raising pressure on the church to find a stronger form of punishment.
"Because you're running out of options if you want to impose a further penalty," Martens said. "I would not be surprised if he gets dismissed from the clerical state."
That would mean that after spending most of his life as a church leader, McCarrick would be defrocked entirely - becoming a lay person, not a Catholic priest.
The now-60-year-old Virginia man who alleged that McCarrick abused him beginning when he was around 11, said he was very emotional upon learning that Pope Francis had accepted McCarrick's resignation, signalling that the church believes the accusers.
"The Vatican now knows everything, realises the depth of his destruction in the church and that it's time to clean house," said James, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used to protect his family.
As for McCarrick: "He's been guilty since the beginning of his life. And he's now realised he's cornered and can't come out."
Francis's swift and decisive action regarding McCarrick comes as the Pope also contends with a massive case of abuse and cover-up in Chile - a country where the Argentinian Pontiff dispatched Vatican investigators. The country's 34 bishops offered to step down en masse after meeting with Francis in May; so far, the Pope has accepted five of those resignations.
Francis will travel to Ireland, another country where the church was scared and weakened by systemic abuse.
- additional reporting AP