LONDON – On the same day as his last public blessing Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI confronted the threat of a fresh scandal within the church hierarchy, with Vatican officials informing him of new allegations that Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric had engaged in inappropriate behavior with priests.
In Britain, the accusations against Cardinal Keith O’Brien – head of the church in Scotland and one of this nation’s most strident opponents of gay rights – were already escalating into a national furor. The controversy revolved around a report first published Saturday night on the website of Britain’s Observer newspaper, saying that four men – three current priests and one former priest – had denounced O’Brien earlier this month for engaging in inappropriate and intimate behavior.
Through a spokesman, O’Brien denied the charges and said he was seeking legal counsel.
If proved true, the allegations could rock the church at a highly sensitive time, highlighting a Vatican in crisis as its cardinals begin to gather in Rome to pick the pope’s successor after his surprise resignation earlier this month.
The exact nature and timing of the alleged contact, which the Observer said was reported to the Vatican’s emissary in London a week before Benedict’s Feb. 11 resignation, were not spelled out. But one of the alleged victims claimed that O’Brien had started a relationship with him in the 1980s that resulted in the need for long-term counseling. Another of the men said O’Brien had initiated inappropriate contact during nightly prayers, according to the paper.
Poised to join the upcoming conclave to elect a new pope, O’Brien missed Sunday Mass in his dioceses of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. His auxiliary, Bishop Stephen Robson, read a statement at the cathedral in Edinburgh, saying: A number of allegations of inappropriate behavior have been made against the cardinal. The cardinal has sought legal advice and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time. There will be further statements in due course. He added, according to the BBC, It is to the Lord that we turn to now in times of need.
The Vatican declined to confirm details of the allegations against 74-year-old O’Brien, who was due to retire next month, saying only that Benedict had been informed of the problem on Sunday.