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June 15, 2015

Two U.S. bishops resign after sex abuse allegations

Pope Francis accepted resignations Monday

Pope Francis on Monday accepted the resignation of two U.S. bishops 10 days after a local prosecutor filed criminal charges against their diocese for failing to protect children from a sexually abusive priest.

Archbishop John Nienstedt of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and one of his deputies, auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, resigned over their links to Curtis Wehmeyer.

Wehmeyer, who has been dismissed from the priesthood, is serving a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2012 to criminal sexual conduct with two minors and possessing child pornography.

Minnesota prosecutor John Choi brought the charges against the archdiocese on June 5. Hundreds of civil cases have already been filed against it for allegedly failing to supervise priests or ignoring sexual abuse by the clergy.

Related article: Vatican orders former archbishop to stand trial for sex abuse

Nienstedt said in a statement he was leaving because his leadership had "drawn attention away from the good works (of the Church)."

"I leave with a clear conscience knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults," he said.

Piche said people of the archdiocese needed healing and hope. "I was getting in the way of that and so I had to resign," he said in his statement.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called for a detailed investigation of the alleged cover-up.

"There were dozens of Church staff who could and should have stopped many of these abusers’ crimes by simply calling 911. But they protected themselves and their jobs by staying silent. They too should be ousted by the Vatican," SNAP said.

The pontiff accepted the resignations the week after approving an unprecedented Vatican tribunal intended to judge bishops for covering up or failing to report sexual abuse, which has caused worldwide scandal for more than a decade.

Choi described "a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behaviour" stretching back decades at the highest level of leadership in the archdiocese, which has 187 parishes and 90 schools.

Victims told investigators that Wehmeyer gave them beer and marijuana or cigarettes, showed them pornographic images and touched their genitals in a camper parked on parish grounds or while camping, according to the complaint.

He is also awaiting trial on charges of assaulting a third child.

The archdiocese was charged with three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the need for protection or services for the minors who were the victims of sexual abuse and three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the minors' delinquency or status as juvenile petty offenders. The archdiocese also faces a related civil complaint.

Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Bernard Anthony Hebda of Newark as apostolic administrator to run the archdiocese until a new archbishop is appointed.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales and Isla Binnie, Editing by Angus MacSwan)