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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Vatican Tuesday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Justin Rigali, whose leadership of Philadelphia's Roman Catholic archdiocese was tainted by scandal over sexual misconduct by priests.
The archdiocese, the sixth largest in the United States with 1.5 million Catholics, has been under fire for accusations it concealed the sexual abuse of children by priests long after the Catholic Church had been rocked by similar high-profile scandals in Europe and the United States.
Rigali said he had submitted his resignation upon turning 75 in April last year, as required by the Vatican. But the resignation was not accepted until five months after a Philadelphia grand jury report found the church had failed to root out past abusers.
"There is no practical relationship to my resignation," Rigali told a news conference, alluding to the sexual misconduct scandal. Referring to the abuse, Rigali added, "We would have liked to know back then everything we know now."
A grand jury in Philadelphia in February indicted three priests, a church teacher and Monsignor William Lynn, the first such indictment of a senior U.S. church official.
Rigali was replaced by the Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, an ardent conservative who has criticized politicians who support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, saying Catholics should not vote for them and that they should be denied communion.
"No bishop will try harder to help persons who have been hurt by the sins of the past or work harder to strengthen and encourage our priests and renew the hearts of our people," Chaput told the news conference.
Problems with abusive priests in the Philadelphia diocese had been flagged in a 2003 grand jury report, the same year Rigali took over, and in another report in 2005.
"We would have assumed," the grand jury's February report said, "by the year 2011, after all the revelations both here and around the world, that the church would not risk its youth by leaving them in the presence of priests subject to substantial evidence of abuse. That is not the case."
The Vatican said in a statement it had accepted the resignation of Rigali, 76, but made no direct comment on the affair.
The recent grand jury report said it found 37 questionable priests who had been kept in assignments that exposed them to children. Of that number, 21 were suspended after the report, and three more were placed on administrative leave.
The 2003 grand jury report found that dozens of priests sexually abused hundreds of children and that Rigali's two predecessors "excused and enabled the abuse," effectively delaying reporting it to authorities until the statutes of limitations had expired.
In May, the Vatican told bishops around the world they must make it a priority to eliminate sexual abuse of children by priests. The letter said bishops should cooperate with civil authorities in abuse cases, with each diocese told to draw up guidelines by the end of 2011 in line with local criminal law for Vatican review.
U.S. Catholic bishops in June approved slight revisions to their 2002 policy on how to deal with offending priests, and the American church commissioned a study of the problem that has cost the church some $2 billion in settlements.
The study, released in May by John Jay College, concluded that incidents of priest sexual abuse were largely decades old, and rooted in having priests entering ministry unprepared for a life of celibacy during an era of loosening societal mores.
Additional reporting by Andrew Stern; Writing by Daniel Trotta