Allies of O’Brien, however, were quick to defend him, saying judgment should be reserved until a full airing of the facts emerged.
The Observer’s report did not specify the extent to which the encounters that O’Brien allegedly initiated were consensual or ultimately resulted in sexual acts. None of the four men were named, and they could not be independently reached.
The Observer quoted one man who said he was a 20-year-old seminarian in the 1980s when first approached by O’Brien. After O’Brien was promoted to bishop, the unidentified man said, he left the priesthood “to preserve my integrity.”
“You have to understand the relationship between a bishop and a priest,” the paper quoted the man as saying. “At your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him. He’s more than your boss, more than the CEO of your company. He has immense power over you. . . .
He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold. . . . He controls every aspect of your life.”
The paper said the men recently reported their allegations to the Vatican emissary in London with the aid of an intermediary from their diocese in the week before the pope’s resignation. The move appeared pegged to O’Brien’s planned retirement. The men were demanding O’Brien’s immediate resignation and apparently went public in an effort to block the cardinal from taking part in the papal conclave.
The allegations surfaced at a time when the papal conclave is being cast in an unwelcome spotlight. Lay groups are orchestrating a campaign to prevent Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, from attending the conclave to choose the next pope. Mahony was stripped of his duties last month over allegations that he shielded pedophilic priests in the 1980s. Victims’ rights groups were quick to demand swift action from the Vatican on the allegations against O’Brien.
“It doesn’t matter that the offenses may have been years ago or that the victims may have technically been adults,” said Barbara Blaine, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “What matters is that, once again, a shrewd, high-ranking Catholic official misused his role and status and power to harm and selfishly take advantage of vulnerable teens and young men.”
Horowitz reported from Rome. Eliza Mackintosh in London and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.