CARDINAL Keith O’Brien has been ordered by the Pope to leave Scotland and undertake months of “spiritual renewal, prayer and penance”.
In an rare sign of accountability for a “Prince of the Church”, the Vatican said yesterday that the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh will leave Scotland and return only with the prior agreement of the Pope.
In February, the cardinal was forced to retire early by the former Pope Benedict XVI after admitting inappropriate behaviour with a number of priests.
After ten weeks in hiding, he returned to Scotland intent on retiring, as previously planned, to a Church property in Dunbar in East Lothian. However, the surprise move angered the Bishops’ Conference who are understood to have complained to the papal nuncio in London.
The short statement released by the Vatican’s press office said: “His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, Archbishop Emeritus of St Andrews and Edinburgh, for the same reason he decided not to participate in the last conclave, and in agreement with the Holy Father, will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance. Any decision regarding future arrangements for His Eminence shall be agreed with the Holy See.”
Margo MacDonald, the MSP and a personal friend of the cardinal, said he had planned to go on a spiritual retreat, but that she hoped he would be allowed to return to Scotland.
She said: “As far as I am concerned, Keith has conducted himself with dignity and respect towards the Church. I don’t have a clue what the Vatican said or how it was conveyed to Keith.
“I hope very, very much that Keith comes back to Scotland – he does not want to be anywhere else and he has given a great deal to Scotland.
“Although he is from Northern Ireland, he is a Scot, he is part of Scotland and, I think, he can still contribute to Scotland.”
The exact whereabouts of Cardinal O’Brien are unknown, although a source close to the Catholic Church said last night that the spiritual retreat, which is expected to last at least three months, is most likely to take place in a monastery in mainland Europe, perhaps in the outskirts of Rome.
Since the cardinal had admitted his wrongdoing, there was no requirement for a formal investigation by the Church. It is understood the retreat he is undertaking is in accordance with Church discipline as written in the code of canon law, in order to “repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender”.
Last night, another source close to the Church said many Catholics will be angry at so slight a punishment and the fact that he still retains the red hat and with it the position as the most senior Catholic in Britain.
The source said: “He is to spend a few months in penance and those he abused have suffered for years. It’s nonsense.”
Tom Devine, the historian, said: “I think this is a more sensible, fair outcome than what had been rumoured which was permanent exile. But I think it is also interesting to see clear evidence of Vatican intervention, not only Vatican intervention to make this decision but, in reading the last sentence of the statement, that after several months of penance and reflection what happens to him will be dependent on the view of the Vatican.”
Last night a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said that he had no comment to make as this was a matter between the cardinal and the Holy See. A spokesman for Philip Tartaglia, the Archbishop of Glasgow and president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said: “We had no advance warning that this statement was coming. It is something which has been agreed between the Holy See and the cardinal.”