Pope Benedict XVI, 85, will become the first pontiff to resign since the 15th century, the Vatican announced on Monday. He steps down on Feb. 28.
The pope said he was resigning because he does not have the physical strength necessary to do the job.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," the pope said in a statement.
The pope took the helm in 2005, just when allegations that the church covered up sexual abuse by clerics were making waves in the U.S. and Ireland. Over the pope's next eight years on the job, sexual abuse allegations also surfaced in Germany, Norway and other European countries, and the ensuing crisis became one of the defining aspects of his tenure.
In a statement on Monday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the pope had brought a "listening heart" to victims of sexual abuse.
But some advocates and victims groups said on Monday that the pope did not turn his listening into adequate action.
David Clohessy, for one, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told Yahoo News that the pope's record on helping those abused by clergy is "terrible."
While he was pope, reporters uncovered Benedict XVI's personal connection to what advocates characterize as an inadequate response to abuse by church leadership for decades. In 1980, the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was aware of a 1980 decision to move a German priest who had molested children back into a parish after he received treatment from a psychiatrist, The New York Times reported in 2010.
And in 2010, the Associated Press reported that in 1985, Ratzinger resisted calls from a diocese in California to defrock a priest who had sexually abused children. The priest stayed at the church—and worked with children—while the Vatican deliberated whether he should be removed from his post for several more years.
In 2001, before he became pope, Ratzinger was put in charge of handling abuse cases for the Vatican. He reportedly was shocked at the pages of testimony from people who were abused, and he resolved to prevent future abuse. In 2010, he apologized for "unspeakable crimes" that had been committed by clergy against children around the world.
“I also acknowledge with you the shame and humiliation that all of us have suffered because of these sins,” he said.
The same year, the pope composed an open letter to those who were abused in Ireland, apologizing on behalf of the church. "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry," he wrote. "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated."
But while "some give him credit for talking about the crisis more than his predecessor," Clohessy said, "we think that's wrong. He's talked about abuse more simply because he's been forced to by external pressures." Clohessy's group, which he says has 12,000 members around the world, wanted the pope to more aggressively root out abusers from the church's ranks and set in place safeguards to prevent future abuse.
John Kelly, founder of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, told the Guardian that Pope Benedict XVI had resisted their calls to investigate church leaders in Ireland accused of protecting priests accused of sexually abusing children. (The Irish government's Murphy Report concluded that church leaders in Dublin covered up abuse between 1975 and 2004.)
Kelly, who was abused by clerics as a child, said the Vatican's response was inadequate. "I'm afraid to say Pope Benedict won't be missed as the Vatican continued to block proper investigations into the abuse scandals during his term in office," Kelly told the Guardian. "Nor are we confident that things are going to be different because of all the conservative cardinals he appointed. For us, he broke his word."