THANKING God and apologising for his failures, Scotland’s pre-eminent Catholic cleric left his Church in turmoil and the faithful without a leader, after his shock resignation from the position of Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.
Less than 48 hours after allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” were levelled at Cardinal Keith O’Brien by three priests and a former priest, Britain’s most senior Catholic broke the silence he had maintained since the controversy emerged and announced he was standing aside.
A short statement issued by the Church said that, with the election of a new pope imminent, the current pontiff had decided the cardinal’s resignation, planned for next month, would take effect immediately.
Cardinal O’Brien said: “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.”
His move, which left many in religious and public life stunned, leaves Britain with no vote in the election of a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
The resignation of the 74-year-old as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh was described by Catholic observers as a “real blow for the Church” in Scotland and further afield.
Professor Tom Devine, of the University of Edinburgh, said: “This is possibly the biggest crisis in the history of Scottish Catholicism since the Reformation. It has come from the heart and soul of the Church.”
Cardinal O’Brien was the only representative of the Church in Britain due to vote in the forthcoming papal conclave. But he said: “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.”
Although the statement made no mention of the allegations against him, Cardinal O’Brien contests the claims by the four men that he acted inappropriately over a period dating back more than three decades.
Some within the Church warned the latest developments would put “enormous pressure” on other cardinals embroiled in scandals to reconsider using their vote in the conclave. Others said it could fall to the new Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh to scrutinise the allegations against his predecessor.
Longstanding critics of the cardinal called for a full investigation into the “serious allegations”, and expressed hope his successor would “show a little more Christian charity”.
However, First Minister Alex Salmond said he had heard of the resignation with “the greatest sadness”, adding: “It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation. 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.”
The cardinal, known for his hardline opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, had tendered his resignation to the Pope in November, citing “indifferent health”, but had not been due to step down until his 75th birthday on 17 March.
The Scottish Catholic Media Office (SCMO) said the Pope had accepted the cardinal’s resignation on 18 February, “given the imminent vacant See” but it was announced only yesterday, the first business day after his Lenten retreat.
The SCMO could not be contacted by phone yesterday, but when asked by text message whether the resignation ahead of schedule was in light of the allegations that were received by Nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, its director, Peter Kearney, replied: “No on [sic] light if [sic] Popes imminent resignation.”
It remains unclear when Cardinal O’Brien first learned his resignation was to be accepted early. However, in a BBC interview on Friday, he outlined his intention to attend the conclave.
In his statement yesterday, he said: “The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today.”
The County Antrim-born cleric, who has been Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since 1985, did not attend Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday after the allegations emerged.
John Haldane, a Vatican adviser and professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews, said the resignation was “shocking and sad” but done “in the interests of the Church”.
Father Tony Flannery, of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, said: “He has set a precedent by saying he is not fit to vote in the conclave. That puts enormous pressure on half a dozen other cardinals immediately.”
Liz Leydon, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, said the news was a “bombshell” to ordinary Catholics. She added: “I think there’s sadness, there’s confusion and I’m beginning to feel a little bit of anger, because the cardinal has been such a forthright, brave and honest leader.”
An apostolic administrator will be appointed to govern the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh until a successor is appointed, although the process by which the allegations will be investigated remains unclear. Jack Valero, a spokesman for Opus Dei, an institution within the Church in which members are encouraged to live out Christ’s teaching through their professional work, said it might fall to the cardinal’s successor to oversee the investigation.
“But these are things from 30 years ago, so I’m not really sure of the procedure,” he said. “But it will be investigated within the Church, together with the depositions from the priests and ex-priest that made the allegations, and there will be a be canonical process, because there’s no crime being committed.
“That will take place and be submitted to both the diocese and to Rome, and they will decide what to do after that.”
Those who have long taken issue with the cardinal’s hardline stance on gay rights welcomed yesterday’s news. Colin Macfarlane, director of Stonewall Scotland, said: “We trust there will now be a full investigation into the serious allegations made against Cardinal O’Brien. We hope his successor will show a little more Christian charity towards openly gay people than the cardinal did himself.”
The statement issued by the Scottish Catholic Media Office on the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien:
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. This information will be announced and published in the Osservatore Romano of Monday, 25 February, 2013.
The Cardinal had already presented last November his resignation in view of his 75th birthday on 17 March, 2013, and it was accepted by the Holy Father with the formula “nunc pro tunc” (now for later).
Given the imminent vacant See, the Holy Father has now decided to accept the said resignation definitively.
Reacting to the acceptance of his resignation, Cardinal O’Brien said: “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.
“I was happy to know that he accepted my resignation ‘nunc pro tunc’ (now – but to take effect later) on 13 November, 2012.
“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.
“In the meantime I will give every assistance to the Apostolic Administrator and to our new Archbishop, once he is appointed, as I prepare to move into retirement.
“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.
“I thank Pope Benedict XVI for his kindness and courtesy to me, and on my own behalf and on behalf of the people of Scotland, I wish him a long and happy retirement.
“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.
“May God who has blessed me so often in my ministry continue to bless and help me in the years
which remain for me on earth and may he shower his blessings on all the peoples of Scotland, especially those I was privileged to serve in a special way in the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh.”
5 NOVEMBER, 2012 Cardinal Keith O’Brien announces he is to resign as president of the Bishops’ Conference
3-9 FEBRUARY The week in which it is understood the allegations against the cardinal were submitted to the office of nuncio Antonia Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain
11 FEBRUARY Pope Benedict announces his pending resignation
18 FEBRUARY Pope accepts the cardinal’s resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh as of 17 March
25 FEBRUARY Church says Pope has now accepted the cardinal’s resignation with immediate effect
28 FEBRUARY Pope Benedict’s last day as pontiff
17 MARCH Cardinal’s 75th birthday, when he would have had to resign