When Cardinal Keith O’Brien handed in his resignation as archbishop of Scotland to Pope Benedict XVI ahead of his 75th birthday on March 17 last year, he likely had no idea how relevant it would become in the history of the Catholic Church. The resignation was made nunc pro tunc or “now for later”—to be dealt with when the pope had time for such matters. But Pope Benedict, who is stepping down from his papacy on February 28, only found time to approve O’Brien’s resignation last Friday. The resignation, and the presumed assumption that O’Brien will not participate in the conclave to elect the next pope, is just the latest in an avalanche of sleazy scandals to rock the Vatican since the pope tendered his resignation on February 11. And, given the speed at which the Vatican’s skeletons are surfacing, O’Brien’s resignation has left many wondering how many cardinals will be left by the time the conclave begins.
News of the highest ranking British Catholic leader’s resignation was announced on Monday morning, just moments before a Vatican briefing in which the pope’s motu proprio, or pontifical addendum to the apostolic constitution, was meant to be released to the press. But the briefing was quickly hijacked by the buzz about O’Brien, even though the Vatican spokespeople refused to answer any key questions on the topic.
At the heart of this scandal—unlike last week’s intimations of a“gay priest lobby”-- are revelations that O’Brien, a staunch critic of homosexuality, had actually made “inappropriate sexual advances” to four male seminarians, one of whom eventually left the church to get married “to save his integrity.” The official complaints by the alleged victims were submitted to the Vatican’s papal nuncio in London in early February, meaning the pope may have very likely been aware of what was happening in Scotland when he announced his resignation in Rome a few days later.
The priests’ complaints supposedly date back to the 1980s, when O’Brien was effectively shepherding the young seminarians toward ordination and the clerical life. Each of the complaints sounds uncomfortably familiar. The priests all describe a situation in which they looked to O’Brien for guidance as their trusted bishop and how he often invited them to his residence for evening prayers. In one case, after O’Brien had become archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, a priest was invited to spend a week at his residence. According to the Guardian, the priest in question described dealing with the archbishop’s “unwanted behavior” to the best of his ability, but because he was essentially dealing with his superior, he felt pressured to engage in acts that made him very uncomfortable.
The news about O’Brien’s alleged double life broke over the weekend with the English press. His resignation as archbishop Monday morning would not have prohibited him from participating in the conclave since he is still under 80 years old, but he made it clear he would not be coming in order to avoid becoming the “focus of the conclave.”
It might be too late for that. O’Brien’s resignation proved to be the pinnacle of a week of sex scandal revelations that have been sweeping through the Vatican since the pope’s resignation. The pope may have set a precedent with his retirement, but the ensuing media maelstrom is also serving as an important lesson for the church that the absence of a funeral between popes creates a news vacuum with an insatiable appetite for scandal.