The disgrace of Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic was complete last night as Cardinal Keith O’Brien admitted to sexual misconduct.
In a shock statement, Cardinal O’Brien effectively admitted that allegations that he made homosexual approaches to young trainee priests were true.
Until a week ago Cardinal O’Brien, 74, had been preparing to help choose the next Pope. But last night he admitted his ‘sexual conduct’ had ‘fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal’. He said sorry and added that he was retiring from public life.
The former archbishop is expected to face a Vatican investigation into his behaviour and could be subjected to further punishment if evidence of wrongdoing is found.
His admission left the Roman Catholic church in both England and Scotland in deep crisis over sexual standards and apparent hypocrisy on the part of its most senior priest.
It meant the troubles in the church in this country will be at the heart of the disputes in Rome as the 115 most senior cardinals begin the process of picking the new Pope.
The conclave – which does not now include any representative from Britain – will have to cope with both the fallout from years of sex-abuse allegations and the dramatic new evidence that even the most senior Roman Catholics do not always practise what they preach.
The allegations against Cardinal O’Brien, made public eight days ago, came from three priests and a former priest, who complained to the Vatican’s representative in Britain, Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Mennini.
The force of the complaints became apparent last Monday when Pope Benedict XVI ordered Cardinal O’Brien to retire immediately.
The cardinal, who had offered his retirement to the Pope in advance of his 75th birthday this month, obeyed the instruction and offered an apology ‘to all whom I have offended’.
Yesterday’s statement said: ‘In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them.
‘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 added: ‘To those I have offended, I apologise and ask forgiveness. To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologise. 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.'
If, as is likely, the Church launches an inquiry into the allegations, it will be conducted at the Vatican under the aegis of the new Pope, rather than by Scottish officials.
The investigation's findings might never be made public.
Three of the four men who complained about Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviour are still priests in the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, where until last Monday, the cardinal was archbishop.
The church in Scotland is now under the temporary leadership of Archbishop of Glasgow Philip Tartaglia, who does not hold the rank of cardinal and so cannot take Cardinal O’Brien’s place in the papal conclave. No English cleric is qualified to join the conclave.