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Cardinal's resignation 'the biggest crisis since the Reformation'

Allegations of 'inappropriate behaviour' latest in a series of scandals to rock the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien

The Catholic Church in Scotland has been engulfed in crisis following the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien amid allegations of "inappropriate behaviour" stretching back 30 years.

Cardinal O'Brien is to step down with immediate effect after three priests and a former priest made complaints to the Vatican.

The move leaves the Catholic Church in Britain with no vote in the forthcoming conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI after the Cardinal said he would not attend.

Cardinal O'Brien's resignation is the latest in a series of scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Two years ago, the Bishop of Bruges stepped down after admitting to sexual abuse. And in Ireland, revelations have come to light that 10,000 women were kept as virtual slaves in church-run laundries across the country.

The current scandal is so profound that Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh said: "This is possibly the biggest crisis in the history of Scottish Catholicism since the Reformation.

"It has come from the heart and soul of the church."

A Scottish cultural advisor to the Vatican said that Cardinal O'Brien had no choice but to step down after the allegations came to light.

Professor John Haldane, who teaches philosophy at St Andrew's University, added that the Cardinal's decision was "unsurprising", adding that the decision was "in the interests of the church".


Prof Haldane said: "The resignation of Cardinal O'Brien is both shocking and sad, for he was a well-known and well-liked figure within the Catholic Church in Scotland, in Britain and more widely.

"Given the nature of the accusations, however, and the publication of them over the weekend, ahead of the formal abdication of Pope Benedict later in the week, it is unsurprising that he has taken the decision to resign.

"The Scottish Catholic Church has a good reputation in Rome for clear and confident leadership, and the Pope particularly relished the Scottish part of his visit to the UK, and appreciated the work done by Cardinal O'Brien and his fellow bishops.

"With that in mind, however, the Cardinal could not but be mindful of the problems that would follow given the inevitable press interest created by the accusations, and he would not want that burden to fall upon the Church and the Pope at what is obviously a critical moment in the life of the Roman Catholic community."

Simon Barrow, co-director of theological think-tank Ekklesia, saw wider implications in the allegations and said that the entire Catholic Church was "under severe judgement" as a consequence.


In a piece on the organisation's website he wrote: "Yesterday, faithful Catholics outside St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh were pronouncing that Cardinal O'Brien, being a good man and a good Catholic, had to be innocent. Meanwhile, a slew of other commentators, angry at the Church's cover-up of abuse and staunch opposition to homosexuality, are already speaking as if he was guilty.

"Cardinal O'Brien's outspokenness, moral certitude and sometimes overbearing public manner (which those who know him say belies considerable personal likeableness) has done him few if any favours in his moment of crisis. Judgemental sounding words make good soundbites when the judgers are accused.

"All of this misses the real point, however. Irrespective of the guilt or otherwise of one man, it is the culture of the Church as a whole — its secrecy, bureaucracy, autocracy, infighting, unaccountability and repressive instincts around sexuality — which is once again under severe judgement here."

First Minister Alex Salmond, however, described Cardinal O’Brien as a "considerate and thoughtful leader", and urged people not to rush to judgement.

He added: "In all of my dealings with the cardinal he has been a considerate and thoughtful leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, stalwart in his faith but constructive in his approach.

"The hugely successful visit of Pope Benedict in 2010 was a highlight of his cardinalship and symbolised the key role of the Catholic Church in Scottish society. It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation."

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was less generous and said the Cardinal now looked "hypocritical" after his resignation.


He said: "Cardinal O'Brien condemned homosexuality as a grave sin and was a long-time opponent of gay equality. He supported homophobic discrimination in law, including the current ban on same-sex marriage.

"In the light of these allegations, his stance looks hypocritical. He appears to have preached one thing in public while doing something different in private."

Tom French, Policy Coordinator for the Equality Network, which clashed with the Catholic Church over the Equal Marriage campaign said: "We hope that the Catholic Church in Scotland will use the opportunity new leadership brings to reassess its opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] equality.

"The Catholic Church does a huge amount of good work on issues like poverty, and it’s a shame that this important work is so often overshadowed by its position on issues of sexuality."

And the Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said Cardinal O'Brien's resignation was a "positive thing".

"He has been a very vocal opponent of lesbian and gay equality and we can only pray that whoever takes over his position will be a little bit more thoughtful in the way they choose to conduct themselves towards lesbian and gay people and lesbian and gay Catholics in particular," she said.

"He has hurt a lot of people and excluded a lot of people from God's love with what he has done."

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