LONDON — Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who stepped down as Britain’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric last week amid allegations of inappropriate behavior with priests, backed away from earlier denials and admitted Sunday to committing acts of sexual misconduct.
The admission was a blow to the church’s hierarchy even as cardinals prepare to meet in Rome on Monday to select a date for the conclave to pick a new pope. In Britain, the admission was considered a confirmation of what observers have called a prime example of church hypocrisy, given that O’Brien, 74, emerged as a leading voice against gay rights and had launched a campaign to block the legalization of same-sex marriages here.
Last Monday, outgoing Pope Benedict XVI effectively forced O’Brien’s early retirement a day after a British newspaper published accounts by four men — including one former priest and three current priests — who alleged the cardinal had initiated intimate contact with them. When the reports first surfaced, O’Brien, who was the head of the church in Scotland since 2003, had denied the charges through a spokesman.
But on Sunday, O’Brien conceded in a statement on an official church Web site that his conduct had “fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” He vowed to “spend the rest of my life in retirement,” adding that “I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland.”
O’Brien has recused himself from attending the gathering to select the next pope, ratcheting up pressure on other cardinals who are attending the conclave despite allegations that they sought to cover up charges of sex abuse by priests.
“To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness,” O’Brien continued. “To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologize.”
On Sunday, Britain’s Observer newspaper — which published the initial allegations — carried further reaction from one of the four men, all of whom remain anonymous.
The paper quoted one man, who said O’Brien had approached him in the 1980s when he was a 20-year-old seminarian, as being “shocked” when a church spokesman insisted last week that O’Brien’s resignation was unconnected to the allegations. He also said that when the men approached the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in London last month to make an official denunciation, they were warned that going public would cause “immense further damage to the church.”
“This is not about a gay culture or a straight culture,” the paper quoted the man as saying. “It’s about an open culture. I would be happy to see an openly gay bishop, cardinal or pope. But the church acts as if sexual identity has to be kept secret.”
“For me, this is about integrity,” the paper quoted the man as saying. “I thought it was best to let the men and women who put their hard-earned cash in the plate every Sunday know what has been happening. If you pay into something you have a right, but also a duty, to know what you are paying for.”