FIVE MONTHS AFTER a grand-jury report blasted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for failing to investigate claims of sexual abuse by priests against children, Pope Benedict XVI will accept Cardinal Justin Rigali's resignation this week, the Daily News has learned.

The Archdiocese did not return calls yesterday seeking comment on Rigali's expected resignation. But sources close to the Archdiocese confirmed a report Thursday on the National Catholic Reporter's website that Rigali would resign. Blogger Michael Sean Winters, who authored that report, said last night that the announcement likely would be made tomorrow.

Sources told the Daily News yesterday that the front-runner to replace the embattled cardinal is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, a Native American.

On his blog, Winters also named as a possible successor Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who would be the first African-American archbishop to become a cardinal. Other candidates suggested by Winters are Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, of Louisville, Ky., and Bishop William Lori, of Bridgeport, Conn.

Rigali, 76, took over for Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in 2003. He has been under fire following a grand-jury report, released in February, accusing the Archdiocese of a widespread cover-up of predatory priests over decades, and alleging that as many as 37 priests remained active in the ministry despite credible accusations against them. The report recommended that the Archdiocese revamp procedures for assisting victims and for removing priests accused of molesting children.

A high-ranking Archdiocesan official was charged with child-endangerment for allegedly transferring "predator priests" to other positions. Two priests, a former priest and a former Catholic schoolteacher were charged with sexually assaulting minors.

In response to the grand-jury report, Rigali initially said that no priests in active ministry "have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."

But in March, Rigali announced the suspensions of 21 priests accused of sexual abuse. The suspensions were the most sweeping in the history of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.

Three other priests already had been placed on administrative leave after the grand-jury report. Five others would have been suspended, the church said in a statement, but three were no longer active and two were no longer in the Archdiocese. The church said that in eight cases, no further investigation was warranted.

With public pressure mounting, Catholic commentators say that a spotlight is shining on Philadelphia.

"This is the most high-stakes personnel move Pope Benedict is making as pope," said Rocco Palmo, of Philadelphia, author of the Catholic-oriented blog Whispers in the Loggia. "Every bishop in the country is watching. They know it will reflect on them and their archdiocese. The eyes of the Catholic world are on Philly right now."

Palmo said the pope decided two weeks ago who would become the city's next cardinal.

As a matter of Cardinal Law, Rigali turned in his letter of resignation when he turned 75 in April 2010. The pope can accept the resignation at any time, but Winters said Rigali hadn't planned to leave so soon.

"I don't think he was planning on leaving this year," Winters said. "He understood after the grand-jury report he could not dig them out of this mess."

The grand-jury investigation was released following the investigation into allegations that two priests and a teacher sexually abused a 10-year-old boy at St. Jerome Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, and that another priest assigned to St. Jerome raped a 14-year-old boy.

The Rev. Charles Engelhardt, former priest Edward Avery and former teacher Bernard Shero were charged with sodomizing the 10-year-old, and the Rev. James Brennan was accused of raping the 14-year-old in his apartment.

Monsignor William Lynn was charged with child endangerment for allegedly shielding and transferring known predatory priests. Lynn, who was responsible for investigating reports of rape and for recommending corrective action to prevent reoffending, also had been Bevilacqua's secretary for clergy.

The grand jury was the second empaneled in the past decade to examine sexual abuse among Philadelphia priests. In 2005, a grand jury accused the Archdiocesan leadership of mishandling abuse complaints and protecting pedophile priests. Those grand jurors complained that the statute of limitations prevented them from criminally charging higher-ups.

Two months ago, the Associated Press reported that the head of the church's own review board accused Rigali and his bishops of having "failed miserably at being open and transparent," and said that most cases of abuse had been kept from the board.

Yesterday, a leading advocate for victims of alleged priest sexual abuse said the church must address its existing culture.

"It's a culture in an establishment that puts the reputation of predators and enablers over the protection of children," Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a telephone interview from Chicago. "Rigali has fallen short of leadership. It is really important, whoever follows Rigali, that there's a new structure in place to prohibit the cardinal from covering up sex crimes."

Rigali's anticipated resignation and replacement come at a time of significant downsizing in the Archdiocese.

The Archdiocese announced in March that seven small parish elementary schools - four in Philadelphia and three in Bucks County - were to close at the end of the recent school year.

Parish elementary-school enrollment in the Archdiocese has fallen 18 percent during the past five years; high-school enrollment has dropped 20 percent.

Last year, 11 schools were closed, including two city high schools: Cardinal Dougherty and North Catholic. Parish schools closed in the city were Ascension of Our Lord and St. Anne, both in Kensington; St. Cyprian, in Cobbs Creek; and St. Hugh of Cluny, in Fairhill.