Pope Francis reaches out to hug Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington in 2015. (Jonathan Newton/AP)

“CREDIBLE AND substantiated.” That was the finding of a Catholic Church investigation into allegations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, sexually abused a minor almost 50 years ago. That it took nearly a half-century for these allegations to be dealt with illustrates the church’s wretched track record in combating clerical sex abuse. At the same time, even this belated reckoning shows the church is making some progress in facing up to its problems rather than, as had been its wont, covering them up.

The cardinal has been removed from the public ministry at the direction of Pope Francis following investigation by the Archdiocese of New York into charges he abused a teenager while he was a priest in New York. The 87-year-old cardinal, who served as Washington’s archbishop from 2001 to 2006, said in a statement that he had no recollection of the incident and believes in his innocence, but that he accepted the Vatican’s decision. He may face other punishment from the church but is unlikely to face criminal charges because New York state law does not allow victims of child sexual abuse to press charges after they turn 23.

The allegations, which became known to the church through its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program to resolve sexual-abuse claims and compensate victims, involve a 16-year-old boy, now in his early 60s, who said he was twice molested while an altar server at special Christmas services. A statement from the Archdiocese of Newark, where Mr. McCarrick also served, said it had never received complaints that he had abused a minor but there were decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct with adults; two of them resulted in settlements.

He is one of the highest-profile Catholic officials to be publicly accused of sexually abusing a minor. It is a sad fall for a cleric, now in frail health, who had many admirers in the nation’s capital. He was renowned for his leadership in global affairs and, ironically, for his role in strengthening the church’s response to the sexual-abuse crisis. But the concern must rightly be for the survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and how their lives were forever changed. “It knocked him sideways,” said the victim’s attorney.

For far too long, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church refused to acknowledge it had a priest problem. It coddled abusers, covered up their crimes and turned its back on young victims. Removing Mr. McCarrick from the ministry after listening — truly listening — to a victim raises hopes that the church has taken to heart its promise to do better by the people who look to it for comfort.