VATICAN CITY – Cardinal Bernard Law, under fire for his role in the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church in the U.S., has resigned as the archbishop of Boston.
Pope John Paul II accepted Law's resignation after a brief meeting Friday morning, the Vatican announced.
Bishop Richard Lennon, an auxiliary Boston bishop, was appointed temporary head of the archdiocese.
Law is the highest-ranking church figure brought down by the sex-abuse scandals embroiling the American church. He had originally offered to resign in April, but the pope rejected the idea at that time.
"I am profoundly grateful to the Holy Father for having accepted my resignation as archbishop of Boston," Law said in a written statement released by the Vatican.
"It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed."
"To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness."
Although Law, 71, has lost his post, he remains a cardinal and could be appointed to another position in the church hierarchy. He will be eligible to vote in papal elections until he turns 80.
The Vatican said the pontiff accepted Law's resignation after the two met Friday morning.
The pope was described by a Vatican official as "deeply saddened" by the whole affair.
In Boston, Rev. Chris Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, said "the resignation of Cardinal Law as archbishop of Boston is just one more moment of sadness over the whole timeline of great sadness and grief that has touched the archdiocese beginning with the monumental tragedy of the abuse of children by priests and the failure and flaws of the administration to deal adequately with those moments of abuse."
Law has been at the Vatican all week, but largely kept out of the public eye. He slipped quietly away from Boston last weekend to begin a round of meetings with top officials at the Vatican over his and his archdiocese's fate.
Abuse victims, lay members and even some priests had intensified calls for Law's removal after 18 years at the helm of the Boston archdiocese, as more cases of sordid conduct by priests were brought to light with the release of church files.
"Thank heaven," said David Clohessy, director of the national group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "I hope there will be thousands of Boston Catholics and hundreds of Boston survivors who will feel better as a result."
Law has been accused of having shuffled from parish to parish priests who were accused, often repeatedly, of sexually abusing minors.
While many victims had been strident in their criticism of Law and had called for his resignation months ago, some were more subdued Friday.
"I don't want to say I'm happy because I'm not," said Anthony Muzzi Jr., who says Geoghan molested him for several years in the 1960s, starting from when he was 11.
"I truly believe in my heart that Law was not the only person who knew all the bad things that were going on," said Muzzi, who was among 86 alleged Geoghan victims and their relatives who reached a $10 million settlement with the archdiocese in September.
Law's temporary replacement, Lennon, offered prayers for the victims of sex abuse and pledged Friday "to work towards healing as a church and furthering the mission of Jesus Christ within our community.
"I am thankful for the good works that his Eminence Cardinal Law accomplished in his service to us as archbishop and for the friendship that I have enjoyed with him," Lennon said in a statement. "I ask for prayers for him as he continues his life in service to the church."
Lennon takes over at an immensely challenging moment. More than 400 alleged victims are suing the archdiocese, and Law has taken steps to allow it to file for bankruptcy. Temporary administrators in the church rarely are empowered to make major decisions.
The crisis in Boston, which was touched off by Law's admission that he reassigned former priest John Geoghan despite accusations of sex abuse, quickly spread to other dioceses, as Catholics demanded greater accountability from their leaders.
At least 325 of America's 46,000 priests have resigned or been removed from duty this year because of molestation claims.
Recent days have been marked by some of the most shocking revelations in the year-old scandal in Boston, with the release of thousands of pages of the archdiocese's personnel files.
Among the worst cases, the papers document a priest beating his housekeeper, another trading cocaine for sex, a third fathering two children and then abandoning the mother, a fourth claiming to be the second coming of Christ to lure teenagers training to be nuns into having sex, and a fifth allegedly molesting a boy on 21 consecutive nights during a cross-country trip.
Victims have accused Law of being more mindful of his personal reputation than honestly dealing with the scandal, and dozens of priests under his command demanded he step down.
Law and seven bishops who have worked for him were subpoenaed last week to appear before a grand jury looking into possible criminal violations by church officials in their supervision of priests accused of sexual abuse, a source familiar with the subpoenas confirmed Thursday.
State police from the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly delivered Law's subpoena to his Boston residence last Friday, the Boston Globe reported.
The Boston Archdiocese is also facing enormous payments in settlements with sex-abuse victims, and the Vatican may decide whether the archdiocese should declare bankruptcy to protect itself from creditors.
The pope on Friday also appointed a new bishop for Lexington, Ky., a post vacant since the previous bishop resigned in June following accusations of sex abuse. The new bishop is Monsignor Ronald William Gainer, 55, currently an official in the diocese of Allentown, Pa.
Whenever a bishop offers to step down, for age, illness or other problems, it is up to the pope to accept the offer or to ask the churchman to stay on, as the pontiff did with Law in April.
Law, now 71, came back from that meeting with the pontiff "encouraged" in his efforts to provide "the strongest possible leadership" in ensuring no child would ever be abused again by a priest in his archdiocese.
Sex-abuse scandals have not been confined to the American church. There have been several other resignations worldwide, including an archbishop in the pope's native Poland who was directly accused of sex abuse.
In January, the Irish church agreed to pay $110 million to victims of systematic sexual abuse by priests, monks and nuns.
A decade ago, an archbishop from Newfoundland accused of covering up a sex-abuse scandal was forced to resign.
In the United States, Boston has been at the epicenter of the scandals because of the archdiocese's centuries-old prestige and Law's insistence that he stay at the helm.
Last month, Law, in an apology delivered during Mass in Boston's Cathedral, acknowledged his responsibility for decisions that "led to intense suffering."
Law was long considered the senior figure of the American hierarchy and was often at the Vatican, where he served on a number of commissions. For the moment, he retains those positions.
Boston, a heavily Irish-American city, is a major center in American Catholicism, which until the past few decades was dominated by clergy of Irish descent. The archbishop of Boston becomes by default one of the most prominent prelates of the American church.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.