Keith O’Brien, Cardinal Ousted in Sex Scandal, Dies at 80

Keith O’Brien, Cardinal Ousted in Sex Scandal, Dies at 80

One of the men was a seminarian at the time, and the others were young clergymen. He was said to have had an enduring relationship with one of them.

After initially denying their accounts, Cardinal O’Brien issued a statement that March acknowledging, “There have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

He added, “To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness.”

An inquiry by the Vatican’s top sex-abuse prosecutor revealed other complaints against him, as well as evidence that he had quashed a proposed investigation of child abuse by priests since the 1950s.


Cardinal Keith O’Brien in 2010.

Scott Campbell/Associated Press

Pope Francis, Benedict’s successor, ultimately permitted him to retain the title of cardinal but, in effect, stripped him of all privileges associated with that rank, including the right to vote in any Vatican conclave.

Other leading Catholic clerics around the world have resigned for turning a blind eye to sexual abuse; others were convicted of abuse themselves; and some vaguely sought absolution. But few approaching the stature of Cardinal O’Brien have publicly admitted sexual conduct that is frowned upon by the church and that contradicted their own preaching.

While he left Scotland in disgrace, originally living in northern England incognito, Cardinal O’Brien’s legacy went well beyond the scandal. He had fiercely criticized the Act of Settlement, a 1701 British law preventing Catholics from ascending to the British throne; he said it encouraged sectarianism. He also favored Scottish independence.

Before his elevation, Cardinal O’Brien was considered a potential reformer and even a borderline liberal, but during the next decade he rarely veered from Vatican doctrine on such matters as prohibiting artificial contraception, barring women from the priesthood and declaring homosexual behavior immoral.

Cardinal O’Brien once described same-sex marriage as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.”

In 2005, though, he said he had no objection to gay teachers in Catholic Schools. “I don’t have a problem with the personal life of a person,” he added, “as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality.”

And the day before the Observer article was published in 2013, he said, without elaboration, “It is a free world and I realize that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”

Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien was born on March 17, 1938 — St. Patrick’s Day — in Ballycastle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

His mother was the former Alice Moriarity. His father, Mark, was a member of the Royal Navy in World War II and, after his discharge, moved the family to Scotland, having found it difficult to get a job in Northern Ireland after the war because of anti-Catholic bigotry there.

Keith O’Brien earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Edinburgh in 1959 and a diploma in education in 1966. He was ordained a priest in 1965.

He was appointed archbishop after serving as spiritual director of St. Andrew’s College in Drygrange and rector of St. Mary’s College in Blairs. Both Catholic seminaries have since closed.

He is survived by his brother, Terry.

“In life, Cardinal O’Brien may have divided opinion,” his successor, Archbishop Leo Cushley, said in a statement. “In death, however, I think all can be united in praying for the repose of his soul, for comfort for his grieving family, and that support and solace be given to those whom he hurt and let down.”

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