[Martin Conroy writes from Scotland]: Last week’s announcement that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation from the College of Cardinals of Keith O’Brien, along with all the rights and duties of the title, brings to a close a tense period for the Scottish Church.
The former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh will continue to observe the strictly private life he has lived since he stepped down in February 2013, following allegations in The Observer of serious sexual misconduct towards three priests and a former priest dating back to the 1980s. There were no allegations against minors, although some claimed he had abused his authority.
At first he contested the allegations but offered to resign as archbishop after admitting: “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” He apologised, asked for forgiveness from those he had offended and from the wider Church, and recused himself from the conclave that elected Pope Francis.
In May 2013 the Vatican said O’Brien would leave “for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance”, noting that “any decision regarding future arrangements for His Eminence shall be agreed with the Holy See”. The following month it was announced that the Vatican would conduct an investigation. The papal nuncio said he was grateful to those bringing the allegations for their courage in speaking out.
Last year Pope Francis sent a personal envoy, the Vatican’s former point man on abuse and now Archbishop of Malta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, on a fact-finding mission to Scotland. Based on his report Pope Francis reached his conclusion.
In renouncing all the rights and privileges of being a cardinal, O’Brien will no longer perform any public, religious or civil duties associated with the title but will retain his ‘red hat’. The move follows a private discussion with Pope Francis which was preceded by a period of prayer and penance in order to reflect upon his misconduct.
Cardinal O’Brien said he accepted the decision of the Holy Father.
I wish to repeat the apology which I made to the Catholic Church and the people of Scotland some two years ago now on March 3, 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.
The cardinal also said he wished to thank “Pope Francis for his fatherly care of me”, and added:
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.
A statement released by the Vatican said the Pope “would like to manifest his pastoral solicitude to all the faithful of the Church in Scotland and to encourage them to continue with hope the path of renewal and reconciliation.”
Cardinal O’Brien remains a cardinal in name only. He will no longer carry out any public religious or civil duties; he cannot officiate at weddings or funerals, or hear confessions or say Mass except in the privacy of his home. Nor will he take part in the next conclave.
He is the first cardinal to resign since Cardinal Louis Billot in 1927, although the Frenchman was compelled to renounce his red hat along with the title as well as duties of a cardinal. As John Allen notes, O’Brien “occupies a basically new niche on the ecclesiastical landscape: A titular cardinal, meaning one in name only.”
One of Scotland’s leading historians, Professor Sir Tom Devine, said that the Church could now draw a line under the story. “The Pope’s intervention is justice tempered with mercy. Dignity has been preserved, the priests involved have had their day in court and been listened to and the matter hasn’t been swept under the carpet.”
Archbishop Leo Cushley, Cardinal O’Brien’s successor, described Pope Francis’ decision as “fair, equitable and proportionate” and added:
Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviour distressed many, it demoralised faithful Catholics and it made the Church less credible to those who are not Catholic. I therefore acknowledge and welcome his apology to those affected by his behaviour and also to the people of Scotland – especially the Catholic community.
For my own part, I would like to express sorrow and regret to those most distressed by the actions of my predecessor. 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. Forgiving the trespasses of others is surely the only way to regain our human and Christian serenity after such events.