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Keith O’Brien, Catholic cardinal who resigned in disgrace, dies at 80

Cardinal Keith O'Brien in 2010. (Scott Campbell/AP)

Keith O’Brien, the first Roman Catholic cardinal in modern history to recuse himself from a papal election and who resigned in disgrace over charges of sexual misconduct, died March 19 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. He was 80.

His former archdiocese in Scotland announced his death. He had a heart ailment.

Cardinal O’Brien, once Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader, resigned as the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in 2013 and recused himself from the conclave that elected Francis as pope after unidentified priests alleged in British newspaper reports that he had acted inappropriately toward them.

The men said that they had complained to church authorities about Cardinal O’Brien’s conduct but that the church had failed to respond. None of the men are believed to have been minors at the time of the purported misconduct.

After initially denying the allegations and impeding the investigation, Cardinal O’Brien eventually admitted that his sexual conduct had “fallen below the standards expected” of a priest, archbishop and cardinal. He apologized and promised to play no further role in the public life of the Scottish church.

“To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness,” he said. “To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologize.”

In 2015, Francis accepted Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation after he relinquished the rights and privileges of being a cardinal. He was allowed to retain the title, however. The decision was reached after Cardinal O’Brien met with Francis, and after the Vatican sent its top sex crimes investigator to Scotland to look into the allegations against him.

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A year earlier, Scottish church officials had reported that Cardinal O’Brien had objected to a national church audit into how church officials had handled sexual abuse cases in the Scottish church from 1952 to 2012. Without Cardinal O’Brien’s participation, the analysis never got off the ground.

Cardinal O’Brien’s official Vatican biography made no mention of the sexual misconduct charges, the Vatican investigation or the findings that he had impeded the 2012 sexual abuse audit. After providing information about his education, ordination and honors, the brief biography said only that he didn’t participate in the 2013 conclave, left Scotland for a period of prayer and resigned being a cardinal in 2015, without saying why.

Experts said his decision not to attend the 2013 papal conclave was unprecedented; never before had a cardinal stayed away from a conclave because of personal scandal, according to Vatican historian Ambrogio Piazzoni.

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