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Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns after sex accusations

(RNS) Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland resigned on Monday in the wake of explosive charges that he had made "inappropriate" sexual advances to three priests and a former seminarian, and said he would skip next month's conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

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.