In Act of Justice and Mercy, Pope Accepts Resignation of Scotland’s Cardinal

Cardinal O'Brien sits at a desk at home in Scotland.

In an extraordinarily decisive act of governance that combines justice with mercy, Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien from “the rights and privileges” of a cardinal. In other words, he remains a cardinal but without any public role or function.

Today’s decision, announced by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, said “The Holy Father has accepted the resignation of the rights and privileges of a Cardinal, expressed in canons 349, 353 and 356 of the Code of Canon Law, presented by His Eminence Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, after a long period of prayer.”


This means he can no longer vote in a conclave to elect the pope, or participate in any public function as a cardinal. He remains a cardinal in name, but without any role or function, and without any of the privileges. He is no longer advisor to the Pope. (The text of the relevant canons are given below)

Pope Francis’ decision, which has few if any precedents in the recent history of the Church, follows on an investigation that he ordered last year into the “inappropriate” sexual behavior of the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, following accusations – also made public – made against him by three priests and a former priest of the archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh. They alleged that he had acted inappropriately with them in the 1980s.

Cardinal O’Brien at first denied the charges but later admitted that he had indeed done wrong by his sexual misconduct, and resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in February 2013. All this caused great scandal in Scotland and damaged the Church there and much farther afield. The cardinal recognized all this in his resignation and publicly asked forgiveness from all whom he had hurt, and especially the Catholics of Scotland and the Holy Father.

Although we do not know all the reasons for the pope’s decision today, the fact that while O’Brien had clearly abused his position of authority over the young men, nevertheless none of the victims was a minor at the time the above events took place – they were all adults – could have been a factor in the final decision that Francis took his final decision in this case in which he sought to blend justice with mercy. He delivered justice, but with mercy; he did not humiliate O’Brien by having him resign from being a cardinal.  

As is well known, O’Brien did not take part in the conclave that elected Pope Francis, and some months later, on May 15, Pope Francis decided that the cardinal should leave Scotland “for several months” for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance.

Later, in 2014, Pope Francis sent Bishop (now archbishop) Charles Scicluna, the chief prosecutor of clergy who abused minors at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to investigate what actually happened in Scotland. Scicluna met the victims of O’Brien, and took depositions from them and others in the archdiocese and elsewhere in Scotland and then presented his confidential report to the pope.

The communique from Cardinal Sodano made no explicit reference to that investigation or to the inappropriate sexual behavior mentioned above, but it did state that “With this provision, His Holiness would like to manifest his pastoral solicitude to all the faithful of the Church in Scotland and to encourage them to continue with hope the path of renewal and reconciliation.” In other words, the pope had acted in their favor, out of care for them, and in the direction of renewal and reconciliation in that local Church.

At the same time as the Vatican issued that communique from the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, whom Francis appointed to succeed O’Brien, also issued a press statement. Cushley “welcomed” the pope’s decision and linked it directly to the events mentioned and to the investigation carried out by Bishop Scicluna last year. Archbishop Cushley noted that the pope is known as a man of justice and mercy, and said he had reached a decision that is “fair, equitable and proportionate.”

Pope Francis’ decision today makes clear yet again that no one is above the law in the Church, and that everyone who holds a position of responsibility in the Catholic Church – be he priest, bishop or cardinal – will be held accountable for his actions in this and other fields. The days of impunity are over, even for cardinals.

The following three canons from the Code of Canon Law were referred to in the communique from the Dean of the College of Cardinals:

Can. 349 The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform, especially in the daily care of the universal Church.

Can. 353 §1. The cardinals especially assist the supreme pastor of the Church through collegial action in consistories in which they are gathered by order of the Roman Pontiff who presides. Consistories are either ordinary or extraordinary.

§2. For an ordinary consistory, all the cardinals, at least those present in Rome, are called together to be consulted concerning certain grave matters which occur rather frequently or to carry out certain very solemn acts.

§3. For an extraordinary consistory, which is celebrated when particular needs of the Church or the treatment of more grave affairs suggests it, all the cardinals are called together.

§4. Only the ordinary consistory in which some solemnities are celebrated can be public, that is, when prelates, representatives of civil societies, and others who have been invited to it are admitted in addition to the cardinals.

Can. 356 Cardinals are obliged to cooperate assiduously with the Roman Pontiff; therefore, cardinals who exercise any office in the curia and who are not diocesan bishops are obliged to reside in Rome. Cardinals who have the care of some diocese as the diocesan bishop are to go to Rome whenever the Roman Pontiff calls them.

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