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British cardinal resigns amid charges of 'inappropriate behavior'

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 7:09 p.m.

LONDON — Britain's most senior Catholic cleric resigned his position Monday, 24 hours after allegations against him by four priests of “inappropriate behavior” dating back 30 years were published in a national newspaper.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Catholic primate of Scotland, contested the allegations and is reported to be seeking legal advice, but in a surprise move said he would be stepping down immediately as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.

He said he would not participate in the election of the successor to Pope Benedict XVI. Elevated to cardinal in 2003, O'Brien would have been Britain's only representative at the conclave next month that will elect the next pope. Although he stepped down as archbishop, he remains a cardinal, with full voting rights to participate in the conclave.

The cardinal's statement said he did not wish to be a distraction: “I also ask God's blessing on my brother cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to elect his successor. 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.”

Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent for Catholic magazine The Tablet, said it was unclear whether the pope or Vatican had requested O'Brien's resignation.

“We don't know whether it was coordinated, if the Holy See has OK'd this or even demanded it.”

Tom Devine, one of the leading authorities on Scottish history, told the Daily Telegraph that the faithful would be “stunned by the seismic turn of events.” Devine considered it “probably the gravest single public crisis to hit the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation.”

O'Brien's decision reignited pressure on a string of other cardinals from the United States, Ireland and Belgium to bow out of the conclave amid allegations of failing to act against child abuse.

His approach contrasted with that of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who flew to Rome during the weekend and has said he intends to participate despite having been rebuked by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez.

According to a report Sunday in the Observer, three priests and one former priest complained to the Vatican representative in Britain, Antonio Mennini, of unspecified “inappropriate behavior” and “inappropriate contact” by O'Brien in the 1980s when he served as their spiritual director while they were seminarians. Further episodes occurred, they said, after he was made a bishop.

O'Brien is known for his outspoken condemnation, in line with Catholic doctrine, of abortion. gay marriage and gay adoption, but in an interview with the BBC on Friday he hinted at favoring abandoning the vow of celibacy.

“For example, the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry — Jesus didn't say that,” he said.

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