In a dramatic development just days before the selection process for a new Pope was to begin at the Vatican, a British Cardinal admitted in a public statement on March 3 that he engaged in sexual misconduct with priests over a period of more than 30 years.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, 74, the highest-ranking Catholic leader in the United Kingdom and an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, issued his statement one week after he abruptly resigned from all of his church duties.
Last week, the Washington Blade reported that the Vatican was downplaying reports of a gay sex scandal after several allegations, including those against O’Brien.
Church insiders believe his resignation was ordered by outgoing Pope Benedict XVI following a report in the British newspaper The Guardian that three priests and a former priest filed formal complaints accusing him of engaging in “intimate” acts with them against their will in the 1980s.
The complaints were filed with the Vatican’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.
“In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public,” O’Brien said in his statement. “Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them,” he said.
“However, I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal,” he said. “To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness.”
He added, “To the Catholic Church and the people of Scotland, I also apologize. I will now spend the rest of my life in retirement. I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland.
O’Brien had served as head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, where the three current and one former priest said he made inappropriate advances toward them when three of them were young priests and one of them was a seminarian.
O’Brien’s statement of admission and apology came one day after The Observer published a follow-up story providing specific details of the allegations made by the three priests and former priest.
“He started fondling my body, kissing me and telling me how special I was to him and how much he loved me,” The Observer quoted one of the priests as saying.
The former priest told The Observer he was a seminarian when O’Brien used bedtime prayers as an opportunity to make advances toward him.
“I knew myself to be heterosexual, but I did say to others that I thought it would be easier to get through seminary if you were gay,” The Observer quoted him as saying.
The Observer said it chose to report the additional details with the full consent of the three priests and former priest, whose motives had come under attack by some church defenders because they haven’t publicly disclosed their names.
According to The Observer, the four men disclosed their names in the written complaints they filed with the Vatican ambassador to the U.K., Archbishop Antonio Mennini, in early February.
The Observer reports that the four decided to file their complaint after they discovered for the first time earlier this year that each of them had encountered what they believed to be improper advances from O’Brien years earlier.
The paper said the men chose to contact the media about their complaint when church officials led them to believe that little would be done about their revelations and that O’Brien would be going to Rome to help select a new Pope.
“I’d never wanted to ‘out’ Keith just for being gay,” the former priest, who is now married, told The Guardian. “But this was confirming that his behavior towards me was part of his modus operandi. He has hurt others, probably worse, than he affected me,” The Observer quoted him as saying.
“And that only became clear a few weeks ago,” he told The Observer, in noting his recent discovery of the three others to whom O’Brien made inappropriate advances.
The Observer and other British newspapers have reported that support by church critics for exposing O’Brien’s inappropriate behavior toward priests whose careers and duties were under his control was based also on what they believe to be his blatant hypocrisy.
In recent years, O’Brien spoke out harshly against same-sex marriage and warned the Scottish Parliament that Scotland would suffer dire consequences if it legalized civil marriage for same-sex couples.
He called same-sex marriage a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right. Gay activists in the U.K. said they were especially offended by his description of same-sex relationships as unhealthy and inferior to heterosexual relationships. Among other things, he told the media that legal recognition of same-sex marriage would result in schools being required to teach kids “homosexual fairy stories.”
O’Brien’s statement admitting to sexual misconduct makes him the highest ranking Catholic Church official to make such an admission, according to Vatican observers.
The admission came one week after Vatican officials denounced reports in the Italian press that an underground network of gay priests assigned to the Vatican organized meetings for sex and may have been subjected to blackmail.