Cardinal Keith O’Brien had a strong voice in his role as one of the UK’s most senior Roman Catholic clergymen. He has been known as an outspoken defender of Catholic teaching on abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality. He once described gay marriage as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.” Cardinal O’Brien also said that some issues – for example abortion and euthanasia – were “basic dogmatic beliefs” of “divine origin” which the church could never accept but he believed it would be within the scope of the new Pope to consider whether the Roman Catholic Church should change its stance on other issues, which were not of divine origin.
He explained, “For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry – Jesus didn’t say that. There was a time when priests got married, and of course we know at the present time in some branches of the church – in some branches of the Catholic church – priests can get married, so that is obviously not of divine origin and it could get discussed again.”
The 74-year-old stepped down as an archbishop on February 25; after three priests and a former priest made allegations of improper behaviour against him dating back to the 1980s. The resignation of Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the wake of allegations of improper behaviour creates a crisis for the Church in Scotland, and represents a heavy blow to the wider Church as it battles to shore up its reputation ahead of the papal election or “conclave”. The conclave is already expected to be difficult in the circumstances created by Pope Benedict’s unprecedented resignation. The Vatican is also struggling to deal with reports of internal corruption and mismanagement.
The allegations against Cardinal O’Brien emerged in a report in the Observer newspaper on Sunday (24 February). It said three priests and one former priest, from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, nuncio Antonio Mennini, in the week before 11 February. One of the priests had said that they had been warned that if their allegations were made public they would cause “immense further damage to the Church.” The cardinal is said to contest the allegations and is seeking legal advice.
The Vatican had been able to “bat away” some criticism of other cardinals who may have been involved in covering up allegations of sexual abuse (even the recently retired pope was also involved in such cover ups as the Archbishop of Munich) but these were more serious because they alleged Cardinal O’Brien was involved directly in improper behaviour towards other priests.
The Catholic Church in recent times has been dogged by one scandal or the other in the past two years. From the sexual molestation of children by priests in the USA, (Fr. Lawrence Murphy), Ireland and Munich; which was covered up by the then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and to, most recently, the internal corruption and mismanagement (Vatileaks scandal) which was brought to world knowledge by the action of the Pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele.
Although the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, has been put in charge of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh until a permanent appointment is made, a move which comes after the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien from the post, it remains to see what action will be taken against Cardinal Keith O’Brien by the new Pontiff.