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.”
His approach contrasted with that of Cardinal Roger 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 handling of sexual abuse cases by priests. Mahony blogged Sunday about Benedict’s final blessing at St. Peter’s Square, implying that he attended.
According to a report Sunday in the Observer newspaper in London, 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’s resignation 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.