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This weekend, Pope Benedict’s final few days as leader of the Catholic Church faced another scandal as reports of “inappropriate touching” by the most senior Catholic in Britain reached the press.British newspaper Observer reported that statements from members of the Catholic church included allegations that Cardinal Keith O’Brien had taken an “inappropriate approach”, made “inappropriate contact” and conducted “unwanted behaviour”.
It was another big scandal for a Church already dealing with Benedict’s unexpected resignation, and perhaps a scandal too far. Within a day of the news leaking, O’Brien announced he was retiring from the Church early.
While reports of sexual misconduct from Catholic priests have become all too common, it seems the way the Church handled this one was different.
Writing at the Washington Post, Jason Horowitz notes that the Vatican apparently allowed the O’Brien to retire immediately. When asked about the case, Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi, distanced the Catholic Church from O’Brien.
“The cardinal can say what he wants to say,” told the press on Monday.
Horowitz writes that such a response is a notable shift in tone — O’Brien was, for one thing, supposed to attend the upcoming papal conclave. Now that he is retired, Britain is left without a representative at the meeting that will result in a new Pope.
This is a marked contrast to the recent case of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. The Vatican insisted that Law head to the conclave in 2005, despite allegations that he covered-up a pedophilia scandal.
Vatican expert John Allen Jnr supports Horowitz’s interpretation. “There is a clear shift in rhetoric,” he tells the Washington Post.
Other statements from Vatican insiders also appear to show a shift in thinking, perhaps showing that the Church is becoming aware that standing by priests accused of sexual abuse may be a losing tactic — especially given the current situation in the Vatican.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a former leader of the British Catholic church, insisted that the Pope had not told O’Brien to resign.
However, when he was asked if cardinals accused of covering up abuse should go to the conclave, Murphy-O’Connor replied, “that would be up to them, up to their own consciences whether they decided not to go to the conclave.”
Meanwhile, a Vatican advisor and Professor at St Andrews, John Haldane, told BBC Newsnight that O’Brien’s decision to resign was “right”.
Pointing to the complicated nature of the Pope’s resignation, Haldane explained “I think in these circumstances, to go to Rome under the cloud of these allegations – even though they, at this stage, simply remain that – would not be helpful for him, it would attract attention.”
It’s a subtle yet important shift — the Vatican acknowledging perhaps, that it’s wider problems are more important than standing by an individual.
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