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 theVatican 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.
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