The former archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, has been removed from ministry following allegations that he sexually abused a teenager nearly 50 years ago when he was a priest in New York.
McCarrick, 87, is one of the most prominent American cardinals active on the international stage, and the charges make him one of the most high-profile Catholic leaders to face allegations of abuse.
Although he has officially retired, McCarrick has continued to travel abroad regularly, including to defend human rights issues.
"This was the first such report of a violation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ever made against him of which the archdiocese was aware," Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York said in a statement making the claims public for the first time Wednesday.
Dolan said an independent forensic agency "thoroughly investigated" the allegation, which was also turned to law enforcement officials. The Holy See was alerted and "encouraged us to continue this process," Dolan added.
A review board that includes jurists, law enforcement experts, parents, psychologists, a priest and a religious sister then "found the allegations credible and substantiated" and the Vatican ordered McCarrick to stop exercising his priestly ministry, Dolan said.
In a statement, McCarrick said he learned of the claims several months ago.
He maintained his innocence but added that "I considered it essential that the charges be reported to the police, thoroughly investigated by an independent agency and given to the Review Board of the Archdiocese of New York."
"I fully cooperated in the process," he added, saying he would obey the Holy See's decision that he halt his ministry.
"While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people."
McCarrick was ordained a priest in 1958 and served as auxiliary bishop of New York from 1977 until 1981, when he was appointed bishop of Metuchen in New Jersey.
In 1986, he became archbishop of Newark, serving there until he was installed as archbishop of Washington in 2001. He held that post until 2006.
The Archdiocese of Washington said the Vatican had only ordered McCarrick to refrain from any public ministry or activity "until a definite decision is made."
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the current archbishop of Newark, and Metuchen's bishop, James Checchio, said they had received three allegations of McCarrick's sexual misconduct with adults decades ago, two of which resulted in settlements.
"Shame on New Jersey Catholic officials who knew about but kept secret allegations that Cardinal McCarrick sexually assaulted adults and that settlements were paid out as a result," said the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"The hierarchy needs to take action, not just wring their hands and accept resignations," the statement said. "They need to open the books, name all the clergy who have been convicted, admitted guilt or been credibly accused of sex crimes against children, minors and vulnerable adults."