Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was accused of sexually harassing several men in a scandal that exploded on the eve of the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis, has renounced the “rights and privileges” of his office but gets to keep his prestigious title, the Vatican announced March 20.
O’Brien did not take part in the March 2013 conclave and now he will be barred from any future conclaves; at age 77, he would have lost his voting eligibility at age 80.
Francis had been under pressure to take some action against O’Brien since one of his victims revealed that an internal church report on O’Brien had been sent to Rome and was “hot enough to burn the varnish” off the pope’s desk.
At least five men — three priests, a former priest and a former seminarian — accused O’Brien of either sexually harassing them or pressuring them into sex, in allegations that went back to the 1980s. O’Brien was accused of being sexually active up through at least 2009.
Those were also the years in which O’Brien became increasingly outspoken in denouncing homosexuality and gay rights; he called homosexuality a “moral degradation” that was “demonstrably harmful” to gay people. In response, the gay rights group Stonewall crowned O’Brien “bigot of the year.”
When Pope Benedict XVI accepted O’Brien’s resignation as one of his last official acts before retiring, O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”
Adding to the urgency for Francis to take further action were recent reports that the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, which O’Brien headed until he resigned in the wake of the initial revelations, had spent nearly $300,000 on a retirement home for O’Brien in northern England.
O’Brien had been in seclusion, reportedly overseas, but church officials in the archdiocese said they were obligated to provide for O’Brien, as they would for any retired priest.
A Vatican spokesperson, Rev. Ciro Benedettini, told journalists that the resignation was “not a punishment resulting from a process” or any formal proceedings against the cardinal, Catholic News Service reported. Rather, it came from O’Brien himself after a long period of prayer and reflection “in dialogue with the Holy Father.”
Those developments, plus the fact that O’Brien can keep the title of cardinal — though he can only wear the signature red hat in the privacy of his own home — may also keep the issue on the boil rather than cooling it off.
Francis has signalled that accountability for bishops in matters of sexual abuse and misconduct will be a litmus test for the church’s credibility in his pontificate, and the O’Brien case was seen as a marker of the pope’s commitment. Francis assigned the Vatican’s former top abuse prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to investigate.
Francis has also frequently expressed his disdain for clerics who put their hierarchical privileges over their mission as pastors.
“What’s odd, in this papacy especially, is that O’Brien loses the power, but not the pomp,” said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey.
“Pope Francis is probably trying to save at least a little face for O’Brien, which fits his theme of forgiveness and mercy, but a red hat is still a red hat, even if there is no punch behind it,” Bellitto said.
Bishops given their trademark “red hats” are considered special advisers to the pope — the College of Cardinals is sometimes called the “senate of the church.” Over time, the custom developed by which cardinals would go into a secret conclave to choose a new pope from among their ranks, which is the central and most notable duty of a cardinal.
It is exceedingly rare for a cardinal to quit; Bellitto said a total of 22 have done so over the centuries, some of them scandalous figures like the Renaissance Cardinal Cesare Borgia.
The last cardinal to renounce the office was a French Jesuit priest, Louis Billot, who resigned in 1927 in anger over Pope Pius XI’s condemnation of the conservative political movement, Action Francaise.
In its statement, the Vatican said Francis had accepted “the resignation of the rights and privileges” of a cardinal, which O’Brien submitted “after a long period of prayer.”
O’Brien followed Friday’s announcement by repeating his apology for “times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me.” He said he “will continue to play no part in the public life of the church in Scotland” but will dedicate the rest of his life to quiet prayer.
O’Brien had already been in ecclesiastical exile; he was no longer running a diocese or celebrating the sacraments in public, and he did not take part in the conclave that elected Francis, nor in any of the meetings of the College of Cardinals that Francis has convened in the past two years.
In his statement, O’Brien thanked Francis “for his fatherly care of me and of those I have offended in any way.”