Three priests in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh have asked Leo Cushley, the new archbishop, to pass on to the Holy See their written complaints which characterise O’Brien as a “sexual predator” who used his authority to compel them into “coercive” and “abusive” sexual relationships.
The priests, whose accusations led to the cardinal’s enforced retirement and disgrace last February, appear determined to force Pope Francis to make a final judgment.
It is now understood that O’Brien’s sexual relationships continued until at least 2009, six years after he was made a cardinal.
Last year, Francis ordered O’Brien to remain in a Catholic religious house in England for three months of “prayer and penance”. However, since this period has now elapsed he has been free to come and go as he pleases but has chosen to remain at the religious house.
The three priests, as well as a fourth former priest of the diocese, had initially dealt with the papal nuncio, the Pope’s ambassador in London. However, the diocesan priests have now entrusted Cushley, a former Vatican diplomat, who prior to his appointment, worked closely with Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, to convey to Rome the treatment they received at the hands of the cardinal.
The documents detailing their allegations have now been sent by Archbishop Cushley to the Congregation of Bishops, from where they are expected to be passed to the Secretariat of State.
Under canon law, the legal framework that governs the Catholic Church, only the Pope can pass judgment on or “sentence” a cardinal.
One possible outcome is that a “promoter of justice” is appointed to the case and asked to investigate the allegations. Both sides may be viewed by the Vatican as guilty of the “canonical crime” of breaking a commandment – thou shalt not commit adultery – a catch-all for sexual sins.
However, it will be the responsibility of the promoter, who acts like a procurator fiscal in Scots law, to determine if O’Brien was guilty of behaviour that would warrant further punishment in light of his senior position.
Under canon law, O’Brien will be able to defend himself and insist, as he has done in private to friends, that these relationships were “consensual” and not “coercive”. He could do so by providing letters, e-mails, text or photographs as evidence. Yesterday, a source close to the Vatican said: “There could, eventually, be a canonical trial and Pope Francis could ask O’Brien to resign from the College of Cardinals and hand back his red hat, but I do think it is unlikely. What may happen instead is that after looking at all the evidence they decide not to pursue the matter on the grounds that he has already been forced to resign and has been disgraced or the Pope may instruct him to spend a second, longer period in prayer and penance. People forget O’Brien is also free to say: ‘No, I’ll do what I want’.”
Last May, O’Brien returned to Scotland with a view to retiring to a house belonging to the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in Dunbar. However, he was then ordered by Pope Francis to move to the religious house in England. Since the cardinal’s period of penance and prayer has elapsed he has made several trips to Scotland to visit friends, including a New Year visit to the home of Canon Matthew McManus at Saint Peter-in-Chains in Ardrossan for an annual reunion with priests with whom he studied.
Yesterday, a friend of O’Brien, who did not wish to be named, said: “He is living in limbo at the moment. He is reasonably fit and well but he’s not happy. He’s been told by the Vatican and the papal nuncio to stay away from public events. I know he would like to come back to Scotland and I don’t see why that couldn’t happen. You can’t write him out of history although I’m sure the Church would like to.”
Last night, a spokesman for Archbishop Cushley said: “The matter remains one which is subject to a decision by the Holy See alone. Archbishop Cushley has listened to the parties concerned and will transmit any information provided to him to the Holy See. Archbishop Cushley will assist in any way he can in order to help bring a just and equitable conclusion to the matter for all involved. Any decision on further action will be a matter for the Holy See as jurisdiction in the matter rests with the Pope.”