BY NATASHA BARSOTTI — Britain's most senior Catholic leader, who resigned in the midst of accusations of "inappropriate acts" with priests and will not be attending the conclave to select a new pope, has admitted to and apologized for his sexual conduct, the UK's Guardian reports.

"There have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal," Cardinal Keith O'Brien says in a statement released March 3.

Three serving priests and a former priest submitted statements to the pope's ambassador to the UK indicating that O'Brien, a vocal opponent of gay rights, engaged in the alleged behaviour "stretching back 30 years." A previous Guardian report says the first allegation against O'Brien dates back to 1980. The other complainants' statements also spoke to "unwanted behaviour" or "inappropriate contact."

The priests' statements were submitted the week before Pope Benedict XVI's Feb 11 resignation, according to the report, which says the four were reluctant to bring the allegations forward and were concerned the church would ignore their complaints. They reportedly want the conclave that elects the new pope to be "clean" and called for O'Brien's resignation.

According to The Guardian, reports that a fifth priest came forward last year about an alleged incident in 2001 came to light March 1. O'Brien, the former archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, had originally contested the allegations, and he had reportedly sought legal advice, but his statement Sunday proved to be an about-face on the matter. 

"In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them," O'Brien says in the statement. "However, 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.

"To those I have offended I apologise and ask forgiveness. To the Catholic church and people of Scotland, I also apologise. 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."

The Guardian report quotes Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, as saying O'Brien's admission is "shocking" but welcome, "not least because it seems Cardinal O'Brien must have been leading a double life, and that is now at an end.

"That must surely be a relief to him and a burden lifted, but it must also be a relief to Catholics in Scotland," Pepinster adds. "The boil has been lanced, and it's time to move on. Too many scandals in the Catholic church drag on and on, but this one has been dealt with speedily, and a line can be drawn."

In the wake of O'Brien's resignation, some senior officials in the Scottish church were upset that the cardinal had been brought down by anonymous accusers whose allegations were unsubstantiated.

In a recent interview with The Observer, the former priest behind some of the accusations against O'Brien says he was angry at the way in which the Scottish church dealt with the complaints, saying he felt he was under scrutiny rather than the cardinal. He says he also felt the "cold disapproval of the church hierarchy for daring to break ranks."

He adds, "To those who want to know my name I would say, what does that change? And what do you think I have done wrong?" 

"I am as sinful as the next man – as my partner and pals frequently remind me," the former priest tells The Observer. "But this isn't about trying to own the moral high ground. I feel compassion for O'Brien, more compassion than the church is showing me, but the truth has to be available – even when that truth is hard to swallow."

"The vacuum the church has created has allowed whimsy and speculation to distort the truth," the priest said. "And the only support I have been offered is a cursory email with a couple of telephone numbers of counsellors hundreds of miles away from me. Anyway, I don't need counselling about Keith O'Brien's unwanted behaviour to me as a young man. But I may need counselling about the trauma of speaking truth to power."

According to the Guardian, the priest also rejected suggestions that the accusations against O'Brien "contain an element of homophobia."

"This is not about a gay culture or a straight culture. It's about an open culture," he said in the report. "I would be happy to see an openly gay bishop, cardinal, or pope. But the church acts as if sexual identity has to be kept secret."

The Observer's Catherine Deveney, who broke the story about the priests' allegations, writes in an analysis that the O'Brien saga is "not about the exposure of one man's alleged foibles. It is about the exposure of a church official who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others' lives that he is not prepared to live out himself. Homosexuality is not the issue; hypocrisy is. The cardinal consistently condemned homosexuality during his reign, vociferously opposing gay adoption and same-sex marriage. The church cannot face in two directions like a grotesque two-headed monster: one face for public, the other for private."

In his annual message of peace in December, former pope Benedict said that attempts to grant gay unions the same status as marriage between men and women "actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society."  

In a recent interview with BBC Scotland, O'Brien echoed the pope's sentiments about gay marriage but said he felt priests should be allowed to get married if they wish to.

"For example, the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry -- Jesus didn't say that," O'Brien said. "There was a time when priests got married, and of course, we know at the present time in some branches of the church -- in some branches of the Catholic church -- priests can get married, so that is obviously not of divine origin, and it could get discussed again." 

The controversy surrounding O'Brien follows a recent story in the Italian daily La Repubblica that claims Benedict's recent resignation is linked in part to a report that there is a "network of gay prelates" in the Vatican. That report, a 300-page dossier compiled by three cardinals, describes a church divided by a number of "factions," including one in which individuals are "united by sexual orientation." 

Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi has said neither he nor the cardinals would "make comments to confirm or deny the things that are said about this matter."



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