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Pope accepts resignation of German bishop

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VATICAN CITY — A leading German bishop who has acknowledged slapping children and is being investigated for sexual abuse of minors and financial misconduct lost his job Saturday as Pope Benedict XVI continued cleaning house.

The German-born pontiff formally accepted the resignation offer made April 21 by Bishop Walter Mixa, an outspoken conservative voice in the German church and a military chaplain for Germany, as well as head of the Augsburg diocese.

The terse Vatican announcement cited no reason for accepting the resignation but simply said the decision was in line with canon law provisions for bishops no longer fit for service.

Mixa had offered to step down amid persistent allegations that he hit children while a priest decades ago and of financial irregularities at a children's home he was responsible for. The pressure on him increased on Friday, when the Augsburg diocese said, without giving details that it had given prosecutors information in line with German church guidelines for handling sex abuse cases.

He is the latest in a line of churchmen to be toppled as the Vatican reels from allegations that bishops and other church hierarchy systematically covered up physical or sexual abuse of minors in several European countries. In some cases, like that of Mixa, bishops have themselves been accused of abuse.

The daily Augsburger Allgemeine reported that Ingolstadt prosecutors had launched a preliminary investigation into Mixa over allegations that he sexually abused a boy during his time as bishop of Eichstaett from 1996 to 2005.

Prosecutors confirmed a preliminary investigation against Mixa but gave no details.

"I have spoken with him by telephone ... and he said that he resolutely rejects these accusations," Mixa's lawyer, Gerhard Decker, said on n-tv television. Mixa has disappeared from public view since offering his resignation.

The Augsburg diocese's vicar general, Karlheinz Knebel, said that "with our actions, we are following the German bishops' demands for transparency and truth."

He said Saturday that diocesan leaders did not intend to comment further on Mixa until investigations against him are concluded.

Knebel urged clerics and the faithful to "preserve the unity of the church in this difficult time."

"We face a new beginning that we must attempt together," he added.

In the earlier allegations, which prompted Mixa to offer to step down and ask forgiveness of "those whom I may have caused heartache," the bishop was accused of hitting children when he was a priest long ago.

He initially denied ever using violence against youngsters but later, after intense pressure, said he may have slapped children.

The case, coming in the country of Benedict's birth and involving a prelate who was a key member of Germany's bishops conference for more than a decade, was particularly embarrassing for the German church and German faithful. Church authorities say the number of people leaving the church has increased sharply since abuse allegations started surfacing in recent months.

Benedict on Saturday met at the Vatican with Belgian bishops, telling them their church was "tried by sin in these times."

Belgium's Catholic church has been rocked by recent allegations of abuse by pedophile priests and clumsly, slow handling of the cases by the bishops.

The bishop of Bruges stepped down recently after acknowledging he had abused a boy, including after he had become a bishop.

Churches in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and even in Nordic countries, where Catholics are a small minority, have been grappling with a steady stream of abuse allegations.

The latest scandals followed Benedict's scathing rebuke earlier this year of Irish bishops, after a government-led probe of church abuse in heavily Catholic Ireland turned up decades of systematic sexual and physical abuse of children in parishes, orphanages, schools and workhouses by priests, brothers and nuns, and cover-ups by church hierarchy.

Associated Press reporter Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.