Pope Francis on Saturday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most prominent figures in the US Catholic Church, following increasing allegations of sexual abuse against him. McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington DC, is the first cardinal to lose his title, Reuters reported. Others involved in sexual abuse scandals have kept their membership in the College of Cardinals.

In a statement, the Vatican said the 88-year-old McCarrick sent his resignation letter to the Pope on Friday night. The Pope then ordered his suspension from any public ministry, which means McCarrick will remain a priest but will be allowed to say Mass only in private. He was also ordered to go into seclusion “for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial”.

The Vatican said that Pope Francis wanted to send out a strong message to all high-ranking officials in the Church. “What this means is that, no matter how important your position, no matter how prestigious, when it comes to sex abuse, you are going to be held accountable,” Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said. “That is the message being sent today.”

In recent weeks, media reports have alleged that McCarrick sexually abused both boys and adult students at seminaries throughout his career. Last month, a man claimed that McCarrick, then working as a priest in New York, assaulted him in the early 1970s, BBC reported. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, said the claims were investigated by an independent forensic agency and a review board had found they were “credible and substantiated”. McCarrick then had claimed he had no recollection of the reported abuse.

Several men have since come forth to claim that McCarrick forced them to sleep with him at a beach house in New Jersey during their time as adult seminarians, according to The Guardian. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said he was “deeply troubled” by the case and that it pointed to a “major gap” in the church’s policy on sexual conduct and sexual abuse by top officials.

Reports have since also claimed that McCarrick reached financial settlements with adults in at least two cases of alleged sexual misconduct.

“The Vatican must investigate and publish its conclusions regarding McCarrick’s advancement and very successful career,” Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a US-based group that tracks abuse cases, told Reuters. “The officials responsible must be identified and disciplined, and the investigative file must be made public.”

McCarrick became a priest in 1958 and worked in New York and New Jersey before becoming Archbishop of Washington in 2001, a post he held until 2006.

The last person to resign from the College of Cardinals is believed to be French theologian Louis Billot, who left over a disagreement with Pope Pius XI in 1927.