LONDON — Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, acknowledged Sunday that he had been guilty of sexual misconduct, a week after he announced his resignation and said he would not attend the conclave to choose the next pope. The moves followed revelations that three current and one former priest had accused him of inappropriate sexual contact dating back decades.
O’Brien, the head of the church in Scotland, is the highest-ranking figure in the church’s recent history to make such an admission.
“I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal,” O’Brien, 74, said in a statement issued by church officials in Scotland.
The statement stunned many in the Scottish church and beyond. Some said his acknowledgment may mean it is possible that the cardinal, who faces an internal investigation by the Vatican, was admitting that the undefined sexual activities he acknowledged may not be restricted to the known allegations, the earliest of which relates to 1980. Ordained in 1965, he became an archbishop in 1985 but was not named cardinal until 2003.
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Initially, O’Brien contested the allegations and said he was seeking legal advice. But on Sunday, he offered a sweeping apology that was, however, bereft of detail. “To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness,” he said. “To the Catholic Church and the people of Scotland, I also apologize. I will now spend the rest of my life in retirement. I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland.”
Many analysts saw the cardinal’s resignation and absence from the conclave as a result of papal pressure, and British newspapers have cited unidentified Vatican officials as saying Pope Benedict XVI — who stunned the world with his own announcement on Feb. 11 that he would step down — had ordered the cardinal to remove himself.
The Vatican and more than a billion Catholics worldwide now await the papal conclave this month, in which 115 cardinals will choose one among their number as Benedict’s successor. Analysts said that O’Brien’s apology was bound to place a shadow over the process.
Several other cardinals accused of protecting abusive priests are under pressure not to participate from advocates for abuse victims. Among them are Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles; Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals; and Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of the church in Ireland.