Catholic Bishop of Derry Dr Seamus Hegarty has tendered his resignation to the Pope due to serious illness.
Dr Hegarty issued a statement yesterday confirming he has been diagnosed with a condition which is “irreversible and progressive”.
It brings to an end months of speculation over the bishop's health and his future in the role.
Derry diocesan spokesman Fr Michael Canny yesterday refused to name the condition afflicting the 71-year-old cleric. Bishop Hegarty confirmed he had been undergoing medical tests over recent months.
He said: “I received a diagnosis of a condition which is, unfortunately, irreversible and progressive.”
“I am now receiving treatment for this condition.
“The conclusion of recent medical assessment indicates that I am no longer able to fulfil the role of Diocesan Bishop due to my medical condition.”
Dr Hegarty said he was being mindful of the Code of Canon Law, in which a bishop is ‘earnestly requested to offer his resignation’ when, because of illness, he becomes unsuited for the fulfilment of his office.
“I have in the past few days submitted my letter of resignation as Bishop of Derry to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI,” said Dr Hegarty.
“I had hoped to continue until the age of 75 as Diocesan Bishop, but my medical condition is such that I have an obligation to submit my resignation. “
Bishop Hegarty said that due to the progressive nature of his condition, he will have to scale back on his duties “while the Holy Father considers my letter of resignation”.
He said: “It is my hope that my resignation will be accepted. It is my intention to maintain a pastoral ministry, to the extent that I am able, into the future.
“I ask for prayers at this time.”
Dr Hegarty was born in Kilcar in Co Donegal and was ordained a priest in 1966 at the age of 26.
He was Bishop of his native Raphoe diocese from 1982 to 1994 before leaving to replace retiring Bishop of Derry Edward Daly.
Dr Hegarty in recent years has apologised to those who were abused as children in Catholic-run institutions in the diocese.
An audit on how Church authorities dealt with abuse complaints in the county has been carried out by the Catholic Church's child protection watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children.
Publication of the report will be determined by the current Bishop of Raphoe Dr Philip Boyce, unless a clear and present danger to children is identified.
Church insiders are expecting it may be released in the coming weeks.
Bishop Hegarty had been head of the Diocese of Derry for a year when a civil action was settled with the family of a girl abused by a priest.
Tributes were paid to the retiring Bishop yesterday. Bishop Edward Daly said he was shocked by the news his successor has resigned.
“Bishop Hegarty was prudent and wise to submit his resignation if he did not feel able any longer to continue in his Episcopal responsibility.”
SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan added: “I wish Bishop Hegarty well as he copes with ongoing health challenges.
“In my dealings with him he has always impressed me.”