Pope Francis accepted the resignation Tuesday of a U.S. bishop who was convicted of failing to report a suspected child abuser, answering calls by victims to take action against bishops who cover up for pedophile priests.
Bishop Robert Finn, who led the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph in Missouri for nearly 10 years, resigned under canon law that allows bishops to resign early for illness or some "grave" reason that makes them unfit for office. But his resignation did not provide a specific reason.
Finn, 62, is 13 years shy of the normal retirement age of 75.
In 2012, Finn was found guilty of one misdemeanor count of failure to report suspected abuse and was sentenced to two years of probation, making him the highest-ranking church official in the U.S. to be convicted of not taking action in response to abuse allegations.
Prosecutors say the diocese did not notify police until six months after concerns were raised in 2011 about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, whose computers were found to contain hundreds of lewd photos of young girls.
Since the convictions, Finn has faced pressure to resign, including local and national petition drives asking the pope to remove him from the diocese.
The removal was praised by Marie Collins, a prominent member of Francis' own sex abuse advisory board who had called for Finn to go and demanded that the Vatican hold bishops accountable when they fail to protect children.
"Things are moving slowly, as I have said many times, but they are moving in the right direction!" Collins tweeted.
Francis appointed Archbishop Joseph Naumann, head of the Kansas City, Kansas, diocese, to lead the Missouri diocese until Finn's successor is named. In a letter to the diocese, Naumann said he prayed "that the coming weeks and months will be a time of grace and healing." Naumann will retain his duties in Kansas.
Finn, who apologized for Ratigan's abuse and took measures to make the diocese safer for children, urged followers to pray for his successor.
Sister Jeanne Christensen, a member of the Sisters of Mercy who has been a critic of Finn, said "it's sad that it took so long."
"We have suffered a lot under him, and justice has finally been done," Christensen said. "Let's just wish him well. And now we need to get moving on to healing the diocese."
For Kansas City resident Andrew Miller, 23, a lifelong member of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lee's Summit, Missouri, Finn's resignation will make attending Mass easier. After Finn's conviction in 2012, he said, he would say, "I'm a Catholic, but_." Now, "I'm ready to call myself a Catholic again."
"Why would I put money in a collection plate to pay for lawyers to defend sex offenders?" he said, adding that next time he attends Mass, he might contribute "in celebration of a new bishop."
Rebecca Randles, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in several abuse lawsuits that have cost the dioceses millions of dollars, said Finn's resignation was an important step for abuse victims and the diocese.
"For survivors, there is a sense that as long as Finn was in charge, there would be no way they would have had closure on their own experience. He was a symbol bearer," she said. "And this kind of abuse ripples across all the Catholic faithful."
One of Finn's strongest advocates, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said Tuesday that Finn had been a target of elements of the Catholic church who did not like the bishop's strict adherence to Catholic teachings.
"He's a good man," Donohue said. "No one called his office and complained specifically that their child was being abused. If he didn't give a damn, he could have ignored it completely and told everyone in his office to ignore it. He didn't. He called the authorities. The way he's been treated is simply not fair."
No U.S. bishop has been forcibly removed for covering up for guilty clergy. Technically speaking, Finn was not removed — he offered to resign, in the same way that Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law did in 2002 after the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded in his archdiocese.
Law had not been convicted of a crime, as Finn was, and the failure of the Vatican to remove Finn for three years after his conviction fueled victims' complaints that bishops were continuing to enjoy protections even under Francis' "zero tolerance" pledge.
In a statement, Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the online abuse resource BishopAccountability.org, said Finn's resignation was a welcome step but called on Francis to publicly state that he was removed for mismanaging the Ratigan case and failing to protect children.
She noted that bishops had been allowed to resign under the previous two popes, but that the Vatican has never publicly linked their resignations to mishandling abuse cases.
"We urge Pope Francis to issue such a statement immediately. That would be unprecedented," she said. "And it would send a bracing message to bishops and religious superiors worldwide that a new era has begun."
Winfield reported from Vatican City. Associated Press writer Hannah Cushman in Chicago contributed to this report.