Through a spokesman, O’Brien denied the allegations and said he was seeking legal counsel.
If proven true, the accusations 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 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 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 said O’Brien had initiated “inappropriate contact” during nightly prayers, according to the paper.
Poised to join the coming 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, that 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 and the matter was now “in the hands” of the outgoing pope.
The allegations surfaced a week after the church became the focus of fresh leaks in the Italian news media, which cited an internal Vatican report as detailing the existence of a gay lobby inside the institution that was subject to outside blackmail. Responding to the reports, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State chided the media for what it called the “widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions.”
In Britain, however, the Observer report was considered additionally explosive because of O’Brien’s public stance on homosexuality. Last year, O’Brien decried the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage here as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.” He has described homosexuality as immoral and was singled out by the London-based gay advocacy group Stonewall for a 2012 “bigot of the year” award.