By RACHEL DONADIO and JOHN F. BURNS
VATICAN CITY — Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric announced his resignation on Monday, a day after being accused of “inappropriate acts” with priests, saying he would not attend the conclave to elect a new pope.
The cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said that he had submitted his resignation months ago, and that the Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI had accepted it on Feb. 18. However, the timing of the announcement — a day after news reports of alleged abuse appeared in Britain — suggested that the Vatican had encouraged the cardinal to stay away from the conclave.
“Everybody’s been struck by how quickly Rome responded,” said Austen Ivereigh, director of the British church advocacy group Catholic Voices. “Clearly Rome saw that there was sufficient substance to the allegations. They would not have told him to stand down unless they thought there was something worth investigating.”
The move leaves Britain without a voting cardinal in the conclave and is bound to raise questions about other cardinals. It comes amid a campaign by some critics to urge Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles not to attend the conclave because of his role in reshuffling priests accused of abuse.
It also comes just days after the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a harsh statement against recent news media reports, including ones alleging a gay sex scandal inside the Vatican. It said that cardinals should not be affected by external pressures when they vote for the next pope. About 115 cardinals are expected to be at the gathering. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former archbishop of Westminster, will attend the meetings in Rome before the conclave, according to Mr. Ivereigh, the cardinal’s former spokesman, but he is past the voting age cutoff of 80 years.
Vatican watchers said that Cardinal O’Brien’s decision not to attend the conclave was rare.
“It’s quite unprecedented,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert with the Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso. “He made it clear that his resignation came under the pressure of the accusations. His certainly isn’t a frequent case and hasn’t happened in conclaves in recent memory.”
On Monday, Benedict changed the laws governing the conclave to allow cardinals to move up the start date before the traditional waiting period of 15 to 20 days after the papacy is vacant. He met with three cardinals who had conducted a secret investigation into a scandal over leaked documents and ruled that the contents of their report would be known only to his successor, not to the cardinals entering the conclave.
Cardinal O’Brien’s announcement came a day after The Observer reported that four men had made complaints to the pope’s diplomatic representative in Britain, Antonio Mennini, the week before Pope Benedict XVI announced on Feb. 11 that he would be stepping down as of Thursday.
The Observer said that the accusations, which dated back to the 1980s, had been forwarded to the Vatican.
Last week, Cardinal O’Brien drew different headlines, telling the BBC that the next pope should consider abandoning the church’s insistence on priestly celibacy, and suggesting that it might be time for the papal conclave to choose a pontiff from Africa or Asia, where church membership has been growing even as it has fallen across Europe and North America.
On Monday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, played down the connection between the news reports and Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation, which the pope accepted after the cardinal reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
A statement issued by the media office of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland said that Cardinal O’Brien had informed the pope some time ago of his intention to resign as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh as his 75th birthday approached on March 17, but that no date had been set.
The cardinal said in the statement, “The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today, 25 February 2013.”
“Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God,” he said. “For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.”
“I also ask God’s blessing on my brother cardinals who will soon gather in Rome,” the statement said, adding: “I will not join them for this conclave in person. I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me — but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor.”
Cardinal O’Brien, whose office had initially said he would fly to Rome before the conclave, has been the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland since 1985 and was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He was among the cardinals who attended the conclave that chose Benedict as John Paul’s successor in 2005.
The main role of cardinals is to elect a new pope, and they remain eligible to vote under any circumstances, even if they have been excommunicated, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, the secretary for the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said last week.
Ambrogio Piazzoni, a papal historian, told reporters last week that he could think of no examples of cardinals who had refrained from voting for anything other than health reasons, or from the pressures of different governments in past years.
Terence McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability.org, a nonprofit Web site based in Massachusetts that seeks to collate documentation about the sexual abuse crisis, said the move set a new precedent.
“Many cardinals scheduled to join the conclave have been involved as bishops in handling cases of clergy sexual abuse, and some of them have done such a bad job that they, too, should recuse themselves from the conclave,” he said in an e-mailed statement, naming Cardinal Mahony and the leaders of the church in two scandal-scarred countries, Cardinal Sean Brady of Ireland and Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium. “If they are involved in the deliberations and the votes, they will taint the outcome, damaging the legitimacy of whoever is ultimately chosen.”
The resignation was met with mixed responses in Scotland, ranging from satisfaction among gay and lesbian groups to dismay among others who saw Cardinal O’Brien as a strong voice for Scotland and its 750,000 Catholics, as well as an influential advocate for the poor and aid to the developing world. He has been a frequent visitor to Catholic missions in Africa.
Among some, there was upset that the cardinal had been brought down by accusers who have so far not identified themselves publicly, and whose allegations have yet to be tested by any ecclesiastical tribunal, or by a Scottish court. There was strong endorsement for the pope’s decision to accelerate the cardinal’s resignation and a hope that the episode would lead to a determination under a new pope to deal decisively with the legacy of sexual abuse among priests.
The differing views were reflected in e-mails that flooded into the BBC.
“I have little pity for a man who said some truly nasty things about the gay community,” wrote James Swinburne, in the English city of Manchester. “Religious belief or not, these views have no place in the U.K. in 2013. His comments will have hurt and offended many people, and potentially perpetuated prejudice that exists within our society.”
Other e-mails were more forgiving. “Having a system which places men with a priestly vocation in a place where they deny their sexuality, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual, is bound to create situations,” wrote Jeremy Ross, from the town of Ashtead, near London. “This rule needs to be challenged by a new pope alongside the fact that the priesthood is forbidden to women.”
Born in Northern Ireland, the cardinal was raised in Scotland after his father was posted to a Royal British Navy base outside Glasgow in the 1940s. After graduating with a chemistry degree, he became a priest at the age of 27. He then spent five years as a math and science teacher before being appointed, in his 40s, to senior positions at two of the church’s principal Scottish seminaries, before moving to Edinburgh as archbishop.
Among Cardinal O’Brien’s defenders was Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, whose push for Scotland’s independence from Britain has won qualified support from the cardinal. Mr. Salmond, with other leading Scottish politicians, stressed that people should not rush to judgment about the cardinal before the church has completed its inquiry into the complaints. “None of us know the outcome of the investigation,” he said, adding, “but I have found him to be a good man for his church and his country.”
“It would be a great pity if a whole lifetime of work was lost” amid the furor over the allegations, he said.
Rachel Donadio reported from Vatican City, and John F. Burns from London. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.