— Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's highest-ranking Catholic leader, said Monday he wouldn't take part in the conclave to elect the next pope after being accused of improper conduct with priests — an unprecedented first head to roll in the mudslinging that has followed Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign.
Benedict accepted O'Brien's resignation as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh — submitted back in November because he is due to turn 75 next month, the normal retirement age for bishops. But simultaneously, O'Brien issued a statement Monday saying he would also skip the conclave because he didn't want to become the focus of media attention at such a delicate time for the church.
O'Brien has said through his spokesman that he is contesting allegations made Sunday in a British newspaper that three priests and a former priest have filed complaints to the Vatican alleging that the cardinal acted inappropriately with them. The Observer newspaper did not name the priests, but it said their allegations date back to the 1980s. There were no details about the alleged inappropriate behavior.
It was the first time that a cardinal has said he was staying away from a conclave because of personal scandal, and comes in the wake of a grass-roots campaign to shame another cardinal, retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, into refraining from participating because of his role protecting sexually abusive priests.
Mahony, however, has said he will participate in the voting for the new pope.
With O'Brien's decision and the illness of an Indonesian cardinal, there are expected to be 115 cardinals under age 80 who are eligible to vote in the conclave.
Separately Monday, Benedict changed the rules of the conclave, allowing cardinals to move up the start date if all of them arrive in Rome before the usual 15-day waiting period between the end of one pontificate and the start of the conclave. Benedict signed a legal document, issued Monday, making some changes to the 1996 Vatican law governing the election of a new pope. It was one of his last acts as pope before resigning Thursday.