O’Brien, who was forced to stand down after three priests and a former priest accused him of improper sexual conduct, has spent the past few months in exile for “the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penitence”. He is currently understood to be living at a monastery in England.
On Saturday the new Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, indicated the Vatican does not plan to pursue further action against his predecessor, who left his post after the revelations were published in February.
Cushley told a newspaper his “impression” was Rome had finished with the matter.
“They will monitor the situation. They will look into it again after a certain period to see that things are going in the way they ought to be going. They may consider other evidence if it comes to light, but it would be up to them as to what they should do,” he said.
O’Brien’s exile is also likely to last longer than the six-month period initially stated, Cushley claimed, adding: “He will not return to Scotland. Nothing is a lifetime sentence, but it is a reasonable assumption that he will not be coming back in the near future.”
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland confirmed that the O’Brien case appeared to be “complete”.
Last night, critics of the Church’s handling of the affair condemned the decision to close the case.
Patricia McKeever, editor of Catholic Truth, which produces a newsletter for “ordinary Catholics in Scotland and beyond”, said: “What punishment has he [O’Brien] had? We have been warning the Church for years about Cardinal O’Brien, but we were regarded as extremists. But the Church should have done something long ago.”
She added: “We ask if Archbishop Cushley will be investigating the full extent of homosexuality among clergy in light of the O’Brien scandal. It would be shocking if he failed to do so.”
A spokesman for Victim Support Scotland said the Church had “let down” those who had been abused.
“It is easy for the Church to determine when to draw a line under such an issue,” he said. “But unfortunately the victims of crime are not in the same position. They have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.”
The Vatican and the Pope could have ordered a full inquiry, which could have concluded with O’Brien being stripped of his cardinal title. But it now appears that the Vatican will not extend that punishment to O’Brien.
Cushley, a senior member of the Vatican diplomatic service who worked with both Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict, was appointed to implement a “healing process” within the Church in Scotland after the scandal broke.
He said he had discussed the matter with the Pope and senior figures in Rome but stressed that he had not been involved in investigating it or offering advice on how it should proceed.
He told the newspaper: “I have to be careful not to interfere with canonical legal processes that have been put in place, and over which I have no jurisdiction at all.
“Canon law takes the judgment out of the hands of the local bishop, and the Holy See has the right to judge cases involving cardinals or bishops. Rome takes over and that’s that. We naturally abide by Rome’s decisions in that.”
Cushley said he believes the Catholic Church will soon recover from the O’Brien affair, and the more recent controversy over the suspension of a Catholic priest in Blantyre.
Father Matthew Despard had made allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour at a seminary in Bearsden and in a parish on Scotland’s west coast.
Cushley added: “These have been hard knocks, it is true. But the Church as a whole is based on faith, not the cult of individuals. So it’s not as if we all depend on a bishop or a set of priests to behave in a certain way as a condition of our faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is backed up by the statistics we saw after the revelations about the cardinal.
“The numbers of those coming to Mass, and financial contributions to the Church, have actually increased.”