Monsignor Leo Cushley, a priest from the Motherwell diocese who is currently working in the Vatican with its secretariat of state, the Vatican’s foreign office, is believed to be at the top of a three-man shortlist to be submitted to Pope Francis for approval.
Other names are understood to be Monsignor Patrick Burke, another Scot in the Vatican who was close to Benedict XVI, and the current Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert.
However, Cushley is believed to be the favoured candidate on account of his “outsider” status and skills in diplomacy and conflict resolution. He served in troublespots during the civil wars in Burundi and Rwanda in east central Africa.
A source said: “The archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh is in a mess. The Vatican needs someone to clean up the mess and they need someone whom they know and trust implicitly and Leo Cushley fits the bill.”
O’Brien stepped down as archbishop in February after admitting having sexual relations with four priests and a seminarian.
In a statement, O’Brien said: “My sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, an archbishop and a cardinal.”
The source added: “He [Cushley] is going to have to find a way of dealing with the priests who accused O’Brien and they are going to need careful pastoral handling.
“It’s going to have to be a diplomatic job.”
In recent years the Vatican has made a habit of placing “outsiders” with experience of working in Rome into troubled dioceses in the aftermath of upset and scandal. Following the crisis in the Church in Ireland over child-sex abuse, Diarmuid Martin, a Vatican veteran, was appointed as archbishop of Dublin.
It is understood that papal nuncio Antonio Mennini has dispensed with the usual practice of writing to senior figures and members of the laity within the St Andrews and Edinburgh diocese to discuss potential candidates in a bid to speed up the process. Instead, the candidates have been discussed with the members of the bishops conference in Scotland. Mennini announced during his recent visit to Scotland that a new archbishop would be appointed by the end of June.
As head of the English Language desk of the secretariat of state, Cushley, a papal translator, is responsible for church relations with the English-speaking world, a massive territory that includes North America, Australia, Britain and parts of the Far East.
Based inside Vatican City, on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace – the same floor as the papal apartments – Cushley is in frequent and direct contact with the Pope whom he accompanies on all visits to English-speaking nations. He rarely gives interviews, but those who know him testify to his quick wit and high level of intelligence.
Cushley, 52, was educated at the junior seminary at Blair’s, outside Aberdeen, before transferring to the Scots College in Rome where he attended the Gregorian University.
Ordained a priest at St John the Baptist in Uddingston, his home town, in 1985, he was “talent spotted” by the Vatican which appointed him to its secretariat. Although initially reluctant to leave his ageing parents, he eventually agreed and left to study political science and international and diplomatic law at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy.
Over the past 18 years, he has risen through the ranks, but not without a number of difficult tasks. After a brief spell at the nunciature in Cairo in 1996, he was transferred to Burundi during its civil war and at the time of the massacres in neighbouring Rwanda. In a rare interview, he said: “It was incredibly impressive how the activity of the church had a beneficial effect in the country. The church was, and is, doing an amazing amount in Burundi.”
However, it was not without its dangers. A few years later the Irish nuncio, as ambassadors are known, and with whom Cushley had worked in Burundi, was shot dead there.
His next posting was to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, for a three-year stint after which he was transferred to the high-profile role as one of three diplomats at the United Nations where the Holy See has the status of permanent observer mission. He speaks a number of languages fluently.
Pope Francis is said to lean on his abilities quite heavily.
A source close to the Vatican said: “The Pope usually accepts the top name on the terna [shortlist], but there is the chance that he will be reluctant to let Leo go.”
O’Brien was Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric until he stood down and he has since left Scotland for “spiritual renewal, prayer and penance” after abandoning plans to retire to a parish in Dunbar, East Lothian.
Of the eight dioceses in Scotland, only three have full-time bishops not waiting to leave – Glasgow, Oban and Aberdeen – which means that if Gilbert fills the vacancy. a new vacancy will be created in the North-east.