Pope Francis has today accepted the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien from the “rights and privileges” of being a cardinal.
The highly unusual move took place following a private discussion between the cardinal and the Pope and means that the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh can no longer take part in a future conclave or assist with the governance of the Church.
He does, however, retain the title of cardinal and is permitted to wear the red hat or vestments associated with the office in private.
Cardinal O’Brien was accused of sexual misconduct by five men, four of them priests, and stood down as archbishop in February 2013 after these allegations were made public.
Pope Francis subsequently asked him to undertake a period of prayer and penance and then sent the Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, to undertake an inquiry last April.
Archbishop Scicluna, a former top prosecutor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, filed a report with Francis which was described by one of O'Brien's accusers as “hot enough to burn the varnish” off the Pope’s desk.
The office of cardinal is a title conferred by the Pope and can be rescinded. In 1927, French Cardinal Louis Billot resigned his red hat following tension between him and Pope Pius XI over the cardinal’s support for the conservative political movement Action Francaise. 22 cardinals have resigned over the centuries and they include, for example, Carlo Odescalchi in 1837, who did so to become a Jesuit, and Cesare Borgia in 1498.
In 1998, Cardinal Herman Groer, the former Archbishop of Vienna, issued a statement saying he would honour a request from Pope John Paul II to give up all religious duties following accusations that he abused youths which emerged from 1994 onwards. But no reference was made to his role as a cardinal.
Responding to the decision Cardinal O’Brien, who now lives outside the diocese in Northumberland, the north of England, said: “I wish to repeat the apology which I made to the Catholic Church and the people of Scotland some two years ago now on 3 March 2013. I then said that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me. For that I am deeply sorry”.
He added: “I thank Pope Francis for his fatherly care of me and of those I have offended in any way. I will continue to play no part in the public life of the Church in Scotland; and will dedicate the rest of my life in retirement, praying especially for the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, for Scotland, and for those I have offended in any way”.
The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, said the cardinal’s actions had made the Church less credible and added that he was confident the Pope’s decision was “fair, equitable and proportionate.”
He said: “Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviour distressed many, demoralised faithful Catholics and made the Church less credible to those who are not Catholic. For my own part, I would like to express sorrow and regret to those most distressed by the actions of my predecessor. I also pay tribute to those who had the courage to come forward to speak to Archbishop Scicluna. I hope now that all of us affected by this sad and regrettable episode will embrace a spirit of forgiveness, the only spirit that can heal any bitterness and hurt that still remains”.