SAN FRANCISCO — A Catholic bishop in Northern California whose diocese has recently been embroiled in priest sex abuse cases resigned Thursday from his post after 11 years.
The Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Bishop Daniel Walsh of Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa.
Diocese spokeswoman Deirdre Frontczak said Walsh is "very tired" and has been seeking to hand over his responsibilities for about two years. His resignation, effective Thursday, comes a year short of his mandatory retirement at age 75, Frontczak said.
"It's been a difficult decade," she said. "He walked into miserable situation and has done a heroic job of restoring the diocese financially and restoring the dignity of the priesthood."
The diocese has been hit with several lawsuits under Walsh's tenure involving alleged child sex abuse by former priests.
In 2006, Walsh was threatened with criminal charges for failing to report accusations of misconduct against the Rev. Xavier Ochoa for five days after the priest admitted the abuses to Walsh. Authorities said the delay allowed Ochoa time to flee to Mexico before he could be arrested.
California law requires clergymen to immediately report suspicion of child sex abuse and to follow up by fax or email within 36 hours. Walsh agreed to participate in a four-month counseling program and was not charged.
The Vatican announcement of Walsh's resignation said he was stepping down under the code of canon law that says bishops are asked to offer their resignation for some serious issue that makes them unfit for office. Often it is used for bishops who are ill or have been dogged by scandal.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he had no information on why Walsh was resigning a year ahead of schedule, but he noted that a co-adjutor bishop was already in place in Santa Rosa, Monsignor Robert Vasa.
Co-adjutor bishops are appointed by the pope to automatically succeed bishops when they retire. Frontczak said Vasa, 59, will take over as Santa Rosa bishop Friday.
Vasa's presence in the diocese was a signal that Wash's resignation wasn't a sudden decision but had rather been in the works for some time, Lombardi said.
Vasa was appointed in January and arrived in March.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that after 30 years as a bishop in several dioceses, Walsh felt that the timing was right to step down. He had brought the diocese through hard times and Vasa was in place and could immediately take over, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who is not related to the departing bishop.
Frontczak did not respond to a query about whether Walsh's resignation was tied to the lawsuits or the accusations surrounding his handling of the Ochoa case. She said the diocese staff was saddened by his departure.
"We'll really miss him. For all the difficulties he's encountered, we love him as a person and think he's made contribution," she said of Walsh, who has led the diocese since 2000.
The diocese in 2007 settled a sex abuse lawsuit involving Ochoa by agreeing to pay more than $5 million to 10 alleged victims. The former priest still has not been found.
Last year, the diocese was named in lawsuits filed by four men who said another former priest, Patrick Joseph McCabe, molested them during his two years at St. Bernard's Parish in Eureka from 1983 to 1985. The men said the diocese knew McCabe already faced child sex abuse charges in his native Ireland but failed to warn parishioners.
Walsh was not bishop during the time in question. The lawsuits were withdrawn earlier this year.
The Diocese of Santa Rosa includes a Catholic population of 150,000 and encompasses more than 11,700 square miles in the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome and religion writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.