For some Roman Catholics, the pope’s decision was a disappointment on an issue that has shadowed Francis’ papacy and threatened his legacy.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., a moment many victims of clerical abuse had hoped would demonstrate his commitment to holding bishops accountable for mismanaging cases of sexual misconduct.

But instead of making an example of Wuerl, who was named in a recent Pennsylvania grand-jury report that accused church leaders of covering up abuse, Francis held him up as a model for the future unity of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope cited Wuerl’s “nobility” in volunteering to resign and said the prelate would stay on as the archdiocese’s caretaker until a successor is appointed.

In an interview, Wuerl, 77, said that he would continue to live in Washington, D.C., and that he expected to keep his position in Vatican offices that exert great influence, including one that advises the pope on the appointment of bishops.

In 1985, Wuerl was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Seattle. In 1988 he was named bishop of Pittsburgh.

For some Catholics, Friday’s decision was a disappointment on an issue that has shadowed Francis’ papacy and threatened his legacy.

After he became pope in 2013, Francis appointed a commission to advise him on safeguarding children from abuse, agreed to create a tribunal to try negligent bishops and spoke of “zero tolerance” for offending priests.

But critics say Francis has been more talk than action. By making it clear he thought Wuerl had served the church well, they said, Francis sent another mixed message on a topic that has shaken faith in the church’s leadership around the world.

“It doesn’t sound like the pope has gone far enough at all,” said Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a national group that advocates for abuse victims and church accountability. “They’re removing him from this situation where people feel betrayed, but he’s still got all the power pretty much that he ever had.”

It was not the first time Francis seemed to reveal a blind spot on the issue of sexual abuse. This year, he initially defended Chilean bishops against accusations that they had covered up abuse. He later listened to those who were abused, said he believed them and started removing bishops.

Until just a few months ago, Wuerl was seen as a reformer and a leader in the church’s response to sexual abuse. Then, in August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania detailed widespread clerical abuse over many decades, including accounts of Wuerl’s poor handling of accusations against priests when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh.

The report, which mentioned Wuerl’s name more than 200 times, said he had relied on the advice of psychologists to permit priests accused of sexually abusing children to remain in the ministry.

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., on Friday released a letter from Francis, saying Wuerl had sufficient evidence to “justify” his actions as a bishop and to “distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes.”

“However,” Francis’ letter added, “your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

The erosion of Wuerl’s standing was compounded by his association with his predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick recently stepped down from the College of Cardinals over accusations that he had molested an altar boy decades ago and coerced seminary students to share his bed.

In an extraordinary letter released in August, the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis of covering up inappropriate behavior by McCarrick and called on the pope to resign.

In the weeks since, Francis has alluded to Viganò’s letter, to which he has said he will not respond, by speaking of the devil’s role in trying to divide the church. He seemed to do so again in Friday’s letter, warning against the “sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed.”

Francis saw Wuerl as that shepherd, a force for unity. The cardinal’s Sept. 21 request that the pontiff accept his resignation reflected his dedication to “procure the good of the people entrusted to your care,” Francis wrote.

Wuerl called the pope’s letter a “very, very beautiful” recognition of his effort to put his flock before himself, but added that the pope, in choosing his replacement, would select a bishop who began serving after the American church adopted new guidelines in 2002 to prevent and punish abuse.

Wuerl had previously offered his resignation at 75, as is customary in the church, but he was allowed to stay on in Washington. In accepting his resignation now, Francis asked that Wuerl remain as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese.