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Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, right, who has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman, has stepped down from a top Holy See position due to his age, the Vatican said Jan. 30.ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Canada’s highest-ranking Catholic cleric and a onetime papal front-runner, stepped down on Monday amid sexual misconduct allegations that he has vehemently denied.

A Vatican press release gave Cardinal Ouellet’s age, 78, as the official reason for his departure. Bishops must submit resignations at age 75, but can remain in office at the Pope’s discretion.

No Canadian has come closer to the papacy, Vatican observers say. For 12 years, Cardinal Ouellet presided over the Dicastery for Bishops, the Vatican office responsible for elevating bishops, giving him considerable sway within the influential College of Cardinals. In 2013, some odds-makers favoured him to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, but the papal conclave sided with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

In a statement released on Monday, Cardinal Ouellet thanked Pope Francis and said he will remain busy working on lessons that emerged from a priesthood symposium he helped organize in Rome last year.

He will remain a cardinal for life and is eligible to vote for the next pope until he reaches age 80.

Cardinal Ouellet remained a strong contender to replace the ailing Pope Francis until misconduct claims surfaced last year, said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and the author of two books on Catholicism.

“When it comes to electing a pope, you don’t want that kind of cloud hanging over him even before he starts,” Mr. Gibson said. “It’s not a good look for the church.”

A former archbishop of Quebec City, Cardinal Ouellet was accused of inappropriately massaging and touching the lower back of a woman who was serving as a pastoral agent in the diocese between 2008 and 2010.

The claims were made public last year as part of a class-action lawsuit alleging that at least 85 members of the Quebec City diocese committed sexual assaults from the 1940s onward. The allegations have not been tested in court.

The cardinal sued the woman for defamation in December, “in order to demonstrate the falsity of the allegations brought against me and to re-establish my reputation and my honour,” he wrote in a press release at the time.

His alleged victim, who went by the initial F. in the class-action lawsuit, revealed her identity in January “in order to regain my dignity,” she said in a statement.

Paméla Groleau alleged that Cardinal Ouellet, who was then an archbishop, first touched her inappropriately when she was 23 years old, at an event for the Sisters of Charity in Quebec City. Shortly after being introduced to the cardinal, she claims, she felt the hands of a man forcefully massaging her shoulders – and when she turned, she saw that it was him. He smiled at her and rubbed her back before parting, she says in the statement of claim. The encounter left her feeling uneasy, and she spoke to colleagues about it afterward.

She claims she was reintroduced to Cardinal Ouellet at a cocktail reception soon after, in November, 2008. She alleges the cardinal hugged her, held her firmly against him, and rubbed her back with his hands before whispering in her ear and asking her name.

Finally, she claims that in February, 2010, at the ordination of a colleague, Cardinal Ouellet intercepted her and said that he should hug her again, because “there was no harm in spoiling oneself a bit.” He hugged her and slid his hand down the length of her back to above her buttocks, she alleges.

Alain Arsenault, Ms. Groleau’s lawyer, declined to comment on Cardinal Ouellet’s resignation. The diocese of Quebec City did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, the French Catholic magazine Golias Hebdo revealed the existence of a second accusation against the cardinal. It was made by a pseudonymous woman known as Marie and related to events dating to 2008 and 2009.

The magazine article contained no further details of the allegations but included the response of the Quebec City diocese in June, 2021, which said the Pope had considered the matter and found no reason to pursue further investigation.

The statement of claim in Ms. Groleau’s allegation said she wrote to Pope Francis about Cardinal Ouellet at the end of January, 2021. She was informed by e-mail a month later that the pontiff had appointed a Jesuit priest, Jacques Servais, to investigate. The claim says Father Servais appeared to have little grasp of the intricacies of dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, that he might be an associate of Cardinal Ouellet and that he was last in touch with Ms. Groleau on March 23, 2021.

In his defamation suit, which seeks $100,000 in damages from his accuser, Cardinal Ouellet denied Ms. Groleau’s allegations and said that even if those events did take place, they did not amount to sexual assault.

The lawsuit claims that the allegations and their context within a class-action lawsuit targeting the alleged sexual abuse of minors “profoundly affected” Cardinal Ouellet, and will “leave an indelible mark on his honour, reputation and dignity.” Cardinal Ouellet committed in court documents to donating any money he receives as a result of the lawsuit to the fight against sexual abuse suffered by Indigenous people in Canada.

Considered a moderate conservative, he has defended priestly celibacy while opposing abortion and the ordainment of women.

“Until these allegations are resolved, it’s difficult to make sense of his legacy,” said Robert Dennis, chair of religious studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. “That aside, he’s had a profound impact on the church globally. To say that of any person is very significant.”

With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

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