Nowhere is that more true than here in Europe, the continent where the global church is losing the most ground. The taint of scandal here was far fresher than in United States, with a new wave of revelations of sex abuse by European clergy emerging in 2010. Since then, evidence suggests that a long and gradual exodus from Roman Catholic pews has only accelerated, with tens of thousands of Europeans abandoning the faith.
Through a spokesman, O’Brien has denied the allegations. But to some, his surprisingly swift departure heralded a new age of zero tolerance at a Vatican that once methodically stood by the princes of the church through thick and thin. Following a whirlwind of events, Pope Benedict XVI accepted O’Brien’s immediate resignation on Monday — only one day after allegations surfaced by four men, including three current priests, who accused the cardinal of initiating “intimate” and inappropriate advances.
But the nature of the allegations against O’Brien has already led others to call them — if proved true — an example of the kind of hypocrisy that is eroding the church’s influence, particularly on the globe’s most socially liberal continent. Fresh scandal now, observers say, could undermine the church’s current battle to restore its voice in the region, which it has waged by rallying against a bevy of liberal causes from legalized abortion in Ireland to gay marriage in France.
“It’s not possible to limit the damage anymore, they’ve just got to repent and open the door to all of the voices they have tried to silence and exclude,” said Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Roehampton in London.
Though it remains unclear whether the allegations against O’Brien constitute a crime in Britain or fall within statutes of limitations, church officials have said he is seeking legal counsel. When the claims became public Sunday, O’Brien skipped a key Mass in his diocese in Scotland, where he has been head of the church since 2003.
On Monday, the cardinal, 74, shied away from any direct reference to the allegations, saying he was stepping down and recusing himself from the conclave to pick the next pope to avoid casting a shadow on the proceedings.
“For any good I have been able to do, I thank God,” O’Brien said in a statement. “For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.”
His resignation comes as the church — while growing virtually everywhere else in the world – is facing an uphill battle in Europe, where the church’s own census showed that the number of Catholics was falling even before the 2010 revelations about sexual abuse.