Allegations force Scottish cardinal to quit
Cardinal Keith O'Brien walks in front of St Peter's Square in 2005. The Irish-born cardinal rejected accusations of 'inappropriate' behaviour with other priests. photograph: max rossi/reuters
Scotland’s most senior Catholic, Northern Ireland-born Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has been ordered by Pope Benedict XVI to resign, following a series of abuse allegations made against him by four men, including three serving priests.
Cardinal O’Brien had been due to step down as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh next month, but the pope – in one of his final acts in office – has “now decided that my resignation will take effect today”, the cardinal said yesterday.
“Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended,” said the cardinal, who failed to turn up on Sunday at a Mass to celebrate the Pope’s eight years in office.
The Ballycastle, Co Antrim-born cleric, who will not vote in the papal conclave, said he did not “wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor”.
The decision by Pope Benedict to order the resignation of so high an office-holder in the church is unprecedented, though it was undoubtedly eased by Cardinal O’Brien’s looming retirement on his 75th birthday. It means that no UK cleric will vote for the next pope.
Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond was quick to offer praise to Cardinal O’Brien, saying: “It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation.”
Saying that he had been “a considerate and thoughtful leader”, Mr Salmond went on: “None of us know the outcome of the investigation into the claims made against him but I have found him to be a good man for his church and country.”
Mr Salmond’s tribute came even though the two men had disagreed strongly over separate plans to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales, and in Scotland – a prospect the churchman described as “grotesque”.
Others, however, were openly critical.
Colin MacFarlane, the Scottish director of gay rights group Stonewall, which titled Cardinal O’Brien “the bigot of the year” last year after he opposed gay marriage, demanded a full investigation.
“We hope his successor will show a little more Christian charity towards openly gay people than the cardinal did himself,” he said, noting that Cardinal O’Brien had said gay marriage would “deliberately” deprive a child of either a mother or a father.
Before his promotion, Cardinal O’Brien was regarded by some as a liberal, but this view changed somewhat – although in a final round of TV interviews last week he caused surprise by advocating the end to celibacy.
He was a powerful if controversial communicator. In 2007, he marked the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act by saying that Scottish abortion numbers were then running at “two Dunblane massacres a day”.
The allegations by the four men, which were sent to the papal nuncio in London before Pope Benedict’s resignation decision, date back to the 1980s, when Cardinal O’Brien served as spiritual director to a diocesan seminary.
However, the same charges have not been made to the police. Three police forces questioned, Fife Constabulary, Lothian and Borders Police and Grampian Police, said they were not investigating any decades-old complaints.
The allegations, however, are being treated particularly seriously by the Vatican – which told the papal nuncio to praise the men in writing for coming forward – because three of the complainants are still serving as priests.
In some cases, the men allege that Cardinal O’Brien made unwanted advances after night prayers, though one claims that he had to resist after the two had drunk late into the night. Cardinal O’Brien strongly denies the charges.
One of the group, who is now married, said he quit the priesthood when Cardinal O’Brien was made a bishop, because he believed that the churchman would “always have power over him” if he stayed.
Cardinal O'Brien the allegations
An “inappropriate approach” in 1980 to an 18-year-old seminarian (trainee priest) after night prayers at St Andrew’s College in Drygrange, Scotland. O’Brien was “spiritual director” to the seminarian, who was ordained but resigned the priesthood when O’Brien was subsequently appointed a bishop.
A claim by a “Priest A” that “inappropriate contact” took place between him and O’Brien when O’Brien visited him in his parish.
A claim by “Priest B” that at a “getting to know” week in the 1980s at O’Brien’s residence when he was Archbishop, during which the priest had to deal with “unwanted behaviour” by O’Brien fuelled by a late-night drinking session.
A claim by “Priest C” of “inappropriate contact” with O’Brien at night prayers when O’Brien was counselling the priest over his [the priest’s] personal problems.
Cardinal O’Brien contests the allegations.