VATICAN CITY – The Scottish cardinal who resigned as archbishop after admitting to sexual misconduct will leave Scotland for months of prayer and atonement, the Vatican said Wednesday in a rare sanction.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien recused himself from the March conclave that elected Pope Francis after a newspaper reported unnamed priests' allegations that he acted inappropriately toward them. There have been no indications the priests were minors at the time.
O'Brien subsequently acknowledged he had engaged in unspecified sexual misbehavior. He resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, apologized and promised to stay out of the church's public life.
On Wednesday, the Vatican said O'Brien, once Britain's highest-ranking Catholic leader, would leave Scotland for several months of "prayer, penance and spiritual renewal" for the same reasons he decided not to participate in the conclave.
The statement didn't say if the arrangements were imposed on O'Brien by the Vatican as punishment, or if he had volunteered. Yet in the past, wayward priests have been sanctioned by the Vatican with punishments of "prayer and penance," suggesting that this was indeed a sanction. The Vatican said his departure was done "in agreement with the Holy Father."
The distinction is significant because victims of clerical abuse have long denounced the lack of accountability among the church hierarchy for having covered up the crimes of pedophile priests. In the church, bishops and cardinals have long been virtually untouchable.
Take American Cardinal Bernard Law, whose cover-up of pedophile priests in Boston was at the root of the U.S. church's sex abuse crisis: Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, but he was given a plum job as archpriest of one of the Vatican's prime basilicas in Rome.
Even though O'Brien is not accused of abusing minors, his case had been watched to see if Pope Francis would take any action against a cardinal who had strayed. The Vatican, for example, has refused to even confirm whether it was investigating the allegations against O'Brien, even though the Scottish Catholic Church's media office said the complaints had been forwarded to Rome and that it expected an investigation.
The Vatican spokesman declined to provide further explanation Wednesday and the spokesman for the Scottish church didn't respond to requests seeking comment.
Scottish media reported that after his resignation, O'Brien moved into a church-owned property in Dunbar where he had long planned to retire, but that Scottish bishops wanted him out of the country given the damage the revelations had caused the church's credibility.
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, who is running the archdiocese until a successor to O'Brien is named, has spoken of the outrage directed at the church for the "hypocrisy" O'Brien's case revealed.
O'Brien was vehemently outspoken in his opposition to gay rights, condemning homosexuality and calling same-sex marriage "a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right." Last year, the gay rights group Stonewall named O'Brien "Bigot of the Year."
That he then admitted to having inappropriate sexual behavior with men prompted gay rights groups to demand an apology.
"There is little doubt that the credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been dealt a serious blow, and we will need to come to terms with that," Tartaglia said in a March 4 homily after O'Brien resigned.
O'Brien became the first cardinal ever to recuse himself from a conclave because of personal scandal.
It wasn't clear what would happen to O'Brien after his months of prayer and penance. The Vatican statement said a decision would be "agreed with the Holy See."
In recent times, only one other cardinal has been taken to task for his failures: Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles. In February, Mahony's successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, stripped Mahony of his administrative duties in the archdiocese after court records showed how he shielded pedophile priests and failed to report child sex crimes to police. It was an unprecedented public dressing-down of a cardinal, but it was done by an archbishop, not a punishment meted out by the Vatican.
In 1995, Cardinal Hans Groer was forced to resign as archbishop of Vienna over claims he molested youths in a monastery in the 1970s.