ROME, February 26, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The abrupt resignation of the cardinal archbishop of Edinburgh, and his announcement that he will not be attending the conclave, has come as a surprise to most veteran Vatican observers. Cardinal Keith O’Brien said that he was resigning because of age, but it follows the sudden appearance this weekend of allegations of unspecified “inappropriate behaviour” dating back to the 1980s by unnamed complainants.

O’Brien’s spokesman said the cardinal has disputed but not outright denied the charges made by three priests and a former priest who denounced him directly to the Vatican authorities. One of the four accusers said that the cardinal had entered into an “inappropriate relationship” with him, which required years of counselling. The claims were made to the nuncio’s office the week before Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement, although the Guardian did not release the information until February 23rd.  

O’Brien is known as the UK’s strongest and most outspoken supporter of Pope Benedict’s reforms, and has described homosexual activity as “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved”. He vigorously opposed the British and Scottish government’s attempts to impose “gay marriage” in law and the closure of the Catholic adoption agencies after the law was changed that would have forced them to consider homosexual partners for adoption.

In a statement, O’Brien confirmed that he would not be attending the conclave. “I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his Successor,” he said. The surprise announcement brings the number of cardinal electors who will attend the conclave to 115, and means that no representative from Britain will be voting for a new pope.

The quick acceptance of O’Brien’s resignation by Pope Benedict is perhaps not surprising given the climate of extreme sensitivity in the Vatican right now over sexual abuse allegations, no matter how insubstantial. What is causing comment is O’Brien’s non-attendance at the conclave. This development comes, it has been noted, immediately following a statement by the Vatican on Friday that attendance at the conclave is a requirement for all the cardinals, no matter what their state of public notoriety.

“It is a duty, a ministry given to cardinals. Under no circumstances can it be waived,” said Father Federico Lombardi at a press briefing. Canon law supports this, but adds a caveat saying that cardinals can be excused due to illness or another “grave” reason. Fr. Lombardi’s comment came in response to calls from victims’ groups and Italian media for the former archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, to stay home. Cardinal Mahony has been disciplined by his successor Archbishop Jose Gomez, who suspended the former’s public duties after it was revealed that he had plotted to conceal sexual molestation by priests.

This weekend, Mahony was deposed by a Los Angeles court for over three hours on Saturday in connection to a molestation case dating to his time as head of the largest Catholic diocese in the US. He described himself as a “scapegoat” and has compared his disgrace to the sufferings of Christ on the cross. After his deposition Mahony was presented with a petition with nearly 10,000 signatures of Catholics asking him not to attend the conclave. Despite this, Mahony left for Rome on the weekend. On his ‘blog, he compared him self to Christ, saying, “Jesus was painted with the same brush as the two thieves crucified with him.”

Along with Mahony, calls have come to prevent attendance by the former Archbishop of Philadelphia Cardinal Rigali, and Belgian Cardinal Danneels formerly the head of the archdiocese of Brussels and Cardinal Sean Brady, all of whom are under a cloud for alleged involvement in sex abuse scandals.

It has also not gone unremarked in Rome that O’Brien has, since his elevation to the College of Cardinals, been the strongest voice – often the only voice – in the British episcopate defending the Church’s teachings on life and family issues, forcefully opposing “gay marriage,” abortion and embryo research. Meanwhile his brothers in the Catholic hierarchy of England and Wales have only recently joined the work of the laity fighting to defend traditional marriage.

A source associated with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children told LSN Sunday night that it is widely believed in pro-life circles in Britain that the sudden appearance of 20 year-old allegations against O’Brien, who is not only Britain’s sole voting cardinal but the strongest voice in the British episcopate supporting Benedict’s reform, is “entirely too convenient”.

 John Smeaton, SPUC director thanked O’Brien “for the many times in which he spoke out forcefully in defence of unborn children and of the family founded on marriage between one man and one woman”.

 “I am particularly grateful for the personal support which he gave to SPUC and to me in my role as SPUC director,” Smeaton said.

 A longtime friend of O’Brien, British writer Peter Jennings, wrote today that the accusations are suspicious. “I believe these priests should have the courage to come out and say exactly who they are.” Jennings, writing in the Daily Record, questioned why the priests “made their claims through a senior figure in the diocese rather than directly to nuncio Antonio Mennini”.

 Jennings added, “I would challenge these four men also to be more specific in their allegations. The talk of inappropriate behaviour is all very vague. It is not even clear if the allegations are sexual.” Jennings said that he never heard a word breathed against O’Brien alleging sexual misconduct in the entire 40 years of acquaintance.

 Before his elevation to the College of Cardinals, O’Brien was known for his “liberal” approach to Catholic doctrine, having said he had no objections to active homosexuals teaching in Catholic schools, and rebuking a fellow Scottish bishop for condemning homosexual activity. After he received his red hat from Pope John Paul II, however, the cardinal appeared to undergo an abrupt change of heart, and has since received widespread condemnation from the left and the media for his strong stance against “gay marriage”. The UK’s leading homosexualist lobby group, the powerful Stonewall, “awarded” O’Brien the title of “Bigot of the year” in 2012.

 In an interview with a German language Catholic news service, Katholisches, Archbishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said that anyone known to have interfered with a conclave is subject to the canonical penalty of automatic excommunication.

 Arrieta, a canonist, said that “precise rules” are needed to “avoid the uncertainty and dangers that had occurred in the 2000 year history” of the papacy. The cardinals, Archbishop Arrieta said, are obliged in obedience to accept the invitation to the General Congregation and then the conclave. Anyone trying to keep a cardinal from attending, or to “intervene” in their participation in the election of a new pope or “attempting to influence” the outcome faces a penalty of automatic excommunication (latae sententiae).

 “This severe exclusion from the ecclesial community, therefore, also applies to anyone who tries to stop one of the 117 voting cardinals in participating in the conclave,” Arrieta said.

 Damian Thompson, religion ‘blogs editor for the Daily Telegraph, wrote today that the allegations have been orchestrated by homosexualist activists to ruin the reputation of one of their strongest opponents, but that the unexpected announcement of retirement by Pope Benedict came as a windfall. 

 “If the scandal had come to light next month, that would have been nicely timed to ruin the Cardinal’s reputation just when the media would be running retrospective pieces about him,” Thompson wrote. “What no one could have guessed is that Pope Benedict would resign, meaning that Cardinal O'Brien would be the only Briton with a vote in the next conclave.”