The Catholic Church in Britain was in turmoil today after its most senior cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who faces allegations of “inappropriate” behaviour, announced he is stepping down.
The 74-year-old tendered his resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in November to Pope Benedict XVI, but said in a statement today: “The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today.”
He added that he would not be attending the conclave of cardinals due to choose a successor to Pope Benedict next month in Rome, leaving Britain’s Roman Catholics with no vote in the election.
“I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest,” Cardinal O’Brien said in a statement.
“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.”
The announcement of his immediate resignation comes after the Observer newspaper reported that three priests and a former priest in Scotland reported the cardinal to the Vatican over allegations of inappropriate behaviour stretching back 30 years.
It is understood that Cardinal O’Brien contests the claims.
The Observer said the four statements containing the claims were submitted to the Papal Nuncio Antonio Mennini’s office the week before Benedict’s resignation was announced on February 11.
The former leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, Cardinal O’Brien tendered his resignation in November to the Pope citing “indifferent health” but had not been expected to step down until his 75th birthday on March 17.
He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003 and became prominent for his colourful and strongly- voiced defence of conservative Catholic teaching.
His opposition to gay marriage earned him the Bigot of the Year award from the gay rights group Stonewall and in 2007 he caused controversy when, speaking on the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act, he said the termination rate north of the border was equivalent to “two Dunblane massacres a day”.
But on Friday, in an interview with the BBC, the cardinal surprised commentators by backing an end to the celibacy rule for the priesthood.
In his statement, Cardinal O’Brien, who played a key role in welcoming Pope Benedict on his visit to Scotland and England in 2010, thanked the pope for his “kindness and courtesy” towards him and the people of Scotland.
“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,” 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.”
He added that he would not be taking part in the upcoming conclave as he did not wish to be the centre of media attention.
“I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focussed on me - but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor,” he said.
“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.”
Cardinal O’Brien did not attend mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh yesterday following the allegations in the Observer.
He was due to celebrate eight years of Pope Benedict holding office.
The cardinal, who was born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, has been the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since 1985.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “I hear the news of Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation with the greatest sadness.
“In all of my dealings with the cardinal, he has been a considerate and thoughtful leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, stalwart in his faith but constructive in his approach.
“The hugely successful visit of Pope Benedict in 2010 was a highlight of his cardinalship and symbolised the key role of the Catholic Church in Scottish society.
“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.”
An apostolic administrator will be appointed to govern the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh until a successor to Cardinal O’Brien is appointed.
The Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation was a “positive thing”.
“He has been a very vocal opponent of lesbian and gay equality and we can only pray that whoever takes over his position will be a little bit more thoughtful in the way they choose to conduct themselves towards lesbian and gay people and lesbian and gay Catholics in particular,” he said.
“He has hurt a lot of people and excluded a lot of people from God’s love with what he has done.”