LONDON -- Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric resigned his position Monday, 24 hours after allegations against him by four priests of “inappropriate behavior” dating back 30 years were published in a national newspaper.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Catholic primate of Scotland, contested the allegations and is reported to be seeking legal advice, but in a surprise move said he would be stepping down immediately as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.
He also said he would not participate in the election of the successor to Pope Benedict XVI. Elevated to cardinal in 2003, O’Brien would have been Britain’s only representative at the conclave next month that will elect the next pope, following Benedict’s resignation. Although he stepped down as archbishop, he remains a cardinal, with full voting rights to participate in the conclave.
The cardinal’s statement made no mention of the allegations against him. But, he said: “I also ask God’s blessing on my brother cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to elect his successor. I will not join them for this conclave in person. I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me –- but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor. However, I will pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the church.”
His approach contrasted with that of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who flew to Rome over the weekend and has said he intends to participate in the conclave, despite having been rebuked by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, over his role handling sexual abuse cases by priests. Mahony blogged on Sunday about Benedict’s final Sunday “Angelus” blessing at St. Peter’s Square, implying that he attended.
According to a report Sunday in the Observer, three priests and one former priest complained to the Vatican representative in Britain, Antonio Mennini, of unspecified “inappropriate behavior” and “inappropriate contact” by O’Brien in the 1980s when he served as their spiritual director while they were seminarians. Further episodes occurred, they said, after he was made a bishop.
O’Brien is known for his outspoken condemnation, in line with Catholic doctrine, of abortion. gay marriage and gay adoption, but in an interview with the BBC on Friday he hinted at favoring abandoning the vow of celibacy.
“For example, the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry -- Jesus didn’t say that,” he said.
“There was a time when priests got married, and of course we know at the present time in some branches of the church -- in some branches of the Catholic church -- priests can get married, so that is obviously not of divine of origin and it could get discussed again.”
O’Brien’s resignation is another blow to the Catholic Church, which is already in turmoil internationally over issues that include child sexual abuse, internal corruption following revelations in documents released by Pope Benedict’s former butler, and recently disclosed mismanagement of church funds by the Vatican bank.
It comes just days ahead of Pope Benedict’s resignation, which will take place on Thursday, triggering the “sede vacante” period when the Catholic Church lacks a leader until a new pope is elected.
A brief announcement from the Vatican said: “The Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has accepted on the 18 February 2013 the resignation of His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien from the pastoral governance of the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh.”
In keeping with church practice, O’Brien had already tendered his resignation as archbishop, effective later this year when he turns 75, the age of retirement from active service for bishops.
"Approaching the age of 75 and at times in indifferent health, I tendered my resignation as Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh to Pope Benedict XVI some months ago,” he said in his statement. “I was happy to know that he accepted my resignation ‘nunc pro tunc’ – [now – but to take effect later] on 13 November 2012.”
He continued: “The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today, 25 February 2013 and that he will appoint an apostolic administrator to govern the archdiocese in my place until my successor as archbishop is appointed.”