At left, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, and Pope Francis in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015. (David Goldman/AP)

IN WRESTLING with the scourge of pedophile priests, Pope Francis has attacked clericalism — the deference accorded to the Catholic Church’s hierarchy at the expense of the faithful — while leaving himself vulnerable to the very same charge. So it was on Friday regarding Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who was implicated in covering up clergy sex abuse when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh. The pope accepted the cardinal’s resignation but at the same time lauded his “nobility” and protected much of his standing and influence within the church.

That mixed message on sexual abuse of minors has been a hallmark of Francis’s papacy. With practically each move he makes to contain the erosion of the church’s authority, he subverts his own purpose, and by extension the institution itself, by his ambivalence.

No doubt, Mr. Wuerl’s eventual departure — he will remain in a caretaker’s role in Washington until a new archbishop is named — is a watershed. It follows close on the heels of an equally stunning event: the resignation from the College of Cardinals of his predecessor in Washington, Theodore McCarrick, in July, following allegations that he molested a minor and pressured seminary students to share his bed decades ago. Gradually, the impunity of the church’s most senior clerics is crumbling under the weight of public opprobrium and the scrutiny of civil authorities.

In Mr. Wuerl’s case, the blow was inflicted by a grand jury investigation led by Pennsylvania’s attorney general, whose bombshell report, issued in August, named more than 300 priests in the abuse of 1,000 children over seven decades. Mr. Wuerl, who was bishop in Pittsburgh for 18 years, was implicated in returning several accused priests to ministry.

As his defenders pointed out, Mr. Wuerl was hardly the worst offender; in some instances, he pressed to remove pedophile priests from positions where they could prey on minors. But as Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, told us: “This isn’t a balancing act . . . you don’t get a mulligan when it comes to passing predator priests around.”

As the Vatican drags its feet — Mr. Wuerl will retain his influence as a member of the body that chooses bishops — the ground is shifting under the church across the United States. Since the Pennsylvania report was issued, the attorney general’s hotline has received nearly 1,300 calls from people saying they were victimized by priests. Similar hotlines are being flooded with calls in New York and New Jersey. A dozen states have launched their own investigations.

Much of the impulse for reform is coming from the laity, who are demanding the accountability that is coming too slowly from Rome. Meanwhile, the church’s own lobbyists continue to resist; in Pennsylvania, they are battling legislation that would allow childhood victims of sex abuse to sue their abusers, and the church, years later.

Pope Francis is summoning top bishops from all over the world to the Vatican in February to discuss the “protection of minors.” That may be his last chance to clarify his murky record on the issue.