Britain’s Observer newspaper reported Saturday that one of O’Brien’s alleged victims said O’Brien had started a “relationship” with him in the 1980s that resulted in the need for long-term counseling. Another of the men, according to the newspaper, said O’Brien had initiated “inappropriate contact” during nightly prayers.
O’Brien, 74, himself was scheduled to retire next month and had presented the pope with a resignation letter in November. He has denied the allegations against him and retained legal counsel. But Benedict, after being informed of the allegations on Sunday, decided to accelerate O’Brien’s exit.
In a statement, O’Brien said he would not attend the conclave to select a new pope, as he had been slated to do, but instead will “pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the Church.”
“I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest,” O’Brien, who was head of the church in Scotland, said in the statement. “Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.”
In a news conference a short time later at the Vatican, church officials insisted that O’Brien decided on his own not to participate in the conclave. That represented a marked change from 2005, when the Vatican fully expected Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced archbishop of Boston who was then in the eye of the sex abuse storm, to attend the conclave at which Benedict was ultimately selected.
“The cardinal can say what he wants to say,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi on Monday morning. Added his colleague, Rev. Tom Rosica: “Nothing has been mentioned about his participation in the conclave.”
John Allen, a leading Vatican observer and correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, called their remarks “a clear shift in rhetoric.”
“In 2005, the Vatican stated that it was a clear duty for cardinals to participate in the conclave,” Allen said. “It appears that they are now shifting the burden for making that decision onto the cardinals themselves.”
The nuance could be interpreted as evidence that the days of the church circling the wagons around prelates stained with allegations of wrongdoing in sex abuse cases are over — or at least changing. Now, in contrast, such clerics appear to be at risk of finding themselves under the wagon’s wheels.