Institutions Politics

Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns after sex accusations

Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia photo courtesy Gavin Scott.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia photo courtesy Gavin Scott.

(RNS) Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland resigned on Monday (Feb. 25)  in the wake of explosive charges that he had made “inappropriate” sexual advances to four men, three of them priests and one now a former seminarian, starting in the 1980s.

O’Brien said he would skip next month’s conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, leaving the United Kingdom without a cardinal’s voice in the election of a new pope.

In a statement, O’Brien said Benedict had accepted his resignation effective immediately, and he appeared to allude to the events surrounding his sudden exit.

“Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended,” said the cardinal, who turns 75 next month, which is the mandatory retirement age for bishops. Cardinals retain the right to vote in a conclave until age 80.

The resignation adds to the air of crisis and tumult that has surrounded the Vatican since Benedict earlier this month announced his intention to resign on Feb. 28, the first pope to voluntarily relinquish the office in 600 years.

O’Brien’s exit means there will be 115 voting cardinals in the conclave, which is expected to begin in the first two weeks of March; an Indonesian cardinal last week said his health would prevent him from making the journey to Rome.

In the weeks since Benedict’s announcement, the media has been filled with reports of infighting and scandals that allegedly drove the pope to step down; the latest revelation was a charge that Benedict recently learned of a number of gay churchmen in the Vatican who have allegedly been subject to blackmail.

The accusations against O’Brien, reported over the weekend by a British newspaper, The Observer, were unrelated to the Vatican scandals but nonetheless fuel the sense of melodrama enveloping the upper levels of the church.

In the United States, there have been demands for Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, not to attend the conclave following details that have emerged about how he mishandled the sexual abuse of children by priests under his authority. Mahony has refused to bow to the demands and plans to vote for the next pope.

O’Brien, archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, is the most senior Catholic churchman in Great Britain. He had previously said through his spokesman that he is contesting allegations. The cardinal has been known to speak his mind on various issues, and Friday had made headlines by calling for discussion of a married priesthood.

Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, described his “great sadness” following O’Brien’s sudden resignation, calling him a “constructive and thoughtful leader” for Scotland’s 700,000 Catholics.

“There will be a great deal of sadness in Scotland,” Salmond told the BBC. “We don’t know what the charges are – just inappropriate behavior. None of us should pre-judge the outcome of these allegations.”

But in recent years O’Brien also has become an increasingly vocal opponent of gay rights and last year was named “bigot of the year” by the gay rights charity Stonewall.

“We hope that his successor will show a little more Christian charity towards openly gay people than the former cardinal did himself,” Stonewall’s Scotland Director, Colin MacFarlane, told RNS.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

About the author

Trevor Grundy


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  • This is only going to get worse unless and until the next Pope intiates a major reform effort that returns the Church leadership to an accountable consensual basis that Jesus and his early followers left behind.
    For an explanation, see my remarks as a retired Harvard trained international lawyer, “Next Pope Can Keep Every Cardinal Out of Jail Only If … “, accessible at:

  • You would hope there is someone within the college of cardinals who could be a pope with integrity, and who will start to take immediate decisive actions to stop these sex crimes against innocent children.
    Yet with that in mind, since all of these cardinals were promoted by popes we have our doubts, in fact some should be fired, including Mahony and O’Brien.

    So we hope that outside law enforcement will get more involved and investigate these crimes against humanity.
    Until high ranking church officials spend some time behind bars, nothing will change within this archaic secretive institution. As long as they can still get away with it, they have no reason to stop.

    Children are safest when child predators and those who enable and conceal their crimes are held responsible.
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511. [email protected],
    “SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • One would think that with 115 voting cardinals that they could find just one with the same values as Christ. The question is will they vote for that person or vote for the one who has played Vatican politics the best over the last decade or so? I’m hoping that the next Pope will focus more on the love of Christ than the supposed judgement of God. It was said that “faith without works is dead” and isn’t love for God and others said to be the greatest work?

  • I agree with you. It makes me question the entire church. Why does this continue to happen? We’re going to make mistakes, but the same mistakes are happening over and over again. This is a bit off topic, but do you think we rely too much on religious leaders rather than the word of God?

  • [Matthew 23:1-12] 23 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying: 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. 3 Therefore all the things they tell YOU, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but do not perform. 4 They bind up heavy loads and put them upon the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger. 5 All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the [scripture-containing] cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes [of their garments]. 6 They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, 7 and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men. 8 But YOU, do not YOU be called Rabbi, for one is YOUR teacher, whereas all YOU are brothers. 9 Moreover, do not call anyone YOUR father on earth, for one is YOUR Father, the heavenly One. 10 Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for YOUR Leader is one, the CHRIST. 11 But the greatest one among YOU must be YOUR minister. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.