A Scottish cardinal who stepped down as an archbishop in 2013 amid revelations of sexual misconduct now has renounced his rights and privileges as a cardinal, although he will retain the title, the Vatican announced Friday.
Though not quite unprecedented, the specter of a Catholic prelate all but losing his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals is exceedingly rare, with the last such case coming in 1927.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, 77, originally quit his post as archbishop in February 2013 following accusations published in Scotland’s The Observer that he had engaged in sexual relations with four men, three priests at the time and one former priest, dating back to the 1980s.
One of the men, who was not identified in the newspaper reports, alleged that the degree of control a superior has over subordinate priests made it hard for him to refuse O’Brien’s demands.
“He [the bishop] has immense power over you. He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold … he controls every aspect of your life,” the priest was quoted as saying.
According to the report, one of those men quit the priesthood when O’Brien was made a bishop in 1985, fearing that O’Brien would be able to exercise power over his career. One of the four men also claimed to have made a report to the papal ambassador in the United Kingdom, but to no effect.
After initially contesting the charges, O’Brien eventually acknowledged that at times his sexual behavior had “fallen beneath the standards expected of [him]” and announced his resignation as well as his withdrawal from the conclave in March 2013 that elected Pope Francis.
O’Brien said at the time that he would be undertaking a period of prayer and reflection, and has not taken part in public activity since.
Friday’s Vatican statement indicated that O’Brien is now making his withdrawal complete, in effect stepping down as a cardinal.
“The Holy Father has accepted the resignation of the rights and privileges of a cardinal … presented by His Eminence Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, after a long period of prayer,” it said.
“With this provision, His Holiness would like to manifest his pastoral solicitude to all the faithful of the Church in Scotland and to encourage them to continue with hope the path of renewal and reconciliation,” the brief statement read.
The last time a member of the College of Cardinals renounced that status came in 1927, with a French Jesuit named Louis Billot. He had been made a cardinal in 1911 and locked horns with Pope Pius XI during the 1920s over Action Français, a far right French monarchist movement.
Billot would not back down from his support for the group and submitted his resignation as a cardinal after a stormy meeting with the pope in September 1927. He remained a priest and theologian and died in 1931.
It’s not yet clear if Francis compelled O’Brien to renounce his status in quite the same way. Nonetheless, the move could be seen as another step toward reform on the broader issue of sexual misconduct and abuse.
Although he has pledged support for zero tolerance and created a special papal commission to promote reform, Pope Francis has faced criticism for not holding bishops accountable for dropping the ball and for creating new bishops who have a mixed record on misconduct and abuse.
O’Brien was appointed as archbishop of St. Andrew and Edinburgh in 1985, and made a cardinal in 2003.