The Catholic Church faces further upheaval in the wake of the Pope’s resignation as Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns amid allegations published in The Observer that he initiated ‘inappropriate acts’ with three priests and a former priest in the 1980s. O’Brien, Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, claims to know neither the identity of his accusers nor the particular details of their accusations.
It was last year that he, Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric, tendered his resignation with a view to leaving his post in mid-March. It was accepted on November 13 by Pope Benedict XVI. The cardinal was expected to retire because of his age but the Pope has decided to end his posting abruptly, in a bid to mitigate the damage to the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church over the coming difficult weeks.
After initially defending his position, the Archbishop has since acquiesced to the Pope and will leave his office presently. He has apologised for his resignation and offered these words to his followers: “I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest. 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.”
Brought to prominence outside the Church for his forthright conservatism, O’Brien described homosexual marriage as a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right’, in an article published by The Telegraph. Surprisingly, he also advocated the liberal view that priests should be allowed to marry and have children, on the grounds that it was hard for some to cope with lifelong celibacy.
In light of such remarks, the nature of the alleged incidents (including an ‘inappropriate relationship’ which drove one priest to seek long-term counselling) might come as a surprise both to his supporters and to his critics: the allegations of homosexual dalliances come mere months after Stonewall, a gay rights charity, named O’Brien the ‘Bigot of the Year 2012’ for his outspoken opposition to homosexual marriage.
The greater shame that this brings to light is not O’Brien’s, but the dysfunctional insecurity of the Catholic Church in its attitudes to homosexuality. In response to the emergent scandal, the Pope saw it fit to cut short a popular and long-serving cardinal’s career, weeks ahead of the papal election. This will leave over five million British Catholics without a representative in conclave, where the next leader of the Catholic Church will be elected. It is lamentable indeed that the Church feels that reticence and evasion are appropriate in the case of such a prominent clergyman’s sexual misdemeanours: the ramifications of O’Brien’s actions will be peripheral in the worst case, as the eyes of all Catholics turn to the Vatican City and conclave. Such drastic action on the part of Benedict XVI betrays a fear that any attention in the media be given to the state of affairs of Cardinal O’Brien.
The Pope officially stood down at 7pm on the February 28. In the following days, 115 cardinals will enter conclave, from where they will not return until they have elected a new leader for the world’s one billion Catholics.