U.K.’s Top Cardinal Resigns Amid Claims of ‘Inappropriate Behavior’

As Pope Benedict prepares to step down, Rome fast-tracks the retirement of Britain's highest ranking Catholic prelate amid scandalous allegations.

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Pope Benedict XVI greets Cardinal Keith O'Brien as Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh looks on at Edinburgh Airport on Sept. 16, 2010 in Edinburgh, Scotland. O'Brien, 74, leader of the Scottish Catholic Church, has been reported to the Vatican over claims of inappropriate behaviour, dating back to the 1980s.

Just days before Pope Benedict XVI is set to officially step down, a scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Britain.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain, announced his resignation on Monday, following allegations from three priests and one retired priest of “inappropriate behavior” which took place decades ago. The four men, from the diocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, registered their accusations with Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, the week before Benedict announced his own resignation on Feb. 11. The allegations were then made public on Feb. 24, when British newspaper The Observer reported the details. The paper claimed the men, who have not been named, were worried that their complaints wouldn’t be dealt with amid the church’s papal selection process.

“It tends to cover up and protect the system at all costs,” one of the men told The Observer. “The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability. If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.”

According to The Observer, each of the men alleges that O’Brien initiated “inappropriate” conduct during the 1980s, often after late-night prayers or sessions of drinking. The specifics of that conduct, however, haven’t been made public.

The Vatican had already confirmed they were investigating the matter when, on Monday morning, O’Brien abruptly announced his resignation. Though O’Brien was just weeks away from a scheduled mid-March retirement, he was set to fly to Rome to take part in the conclave that will vote on Benedict’s successor. However, according to statements from the cardinal, the pope decided that O’Brien’s resignation should take effect on Monday. O’Brien, who added in his statement that he didn’t want the “media attention in Rome focused on [him],” will no longer be present for the vote.

As both Benedict’s papal tenure and his unprecedented resignation have been besieged by claims of corruption and incompetence at the Vatican, many people believe that O’Brien’s resignation was designed to spare the church further controversy. Kieran Conry, the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, told the BBC, “we can’t risk any more suggestions of cover up or a lack of clarity.”

O’Brien, 74, has long been outspoken on his views against homosexuality, claiming recently in The Telegraph that gay marriage and same-sex civil partnerships in Britain would be “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved.” He has, however, gone against official doctrine when it comes to the church’s position on barring priests from marriage. Last week he told the BBC, “I realize 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.”

In a statement on Monday, O’Brien – who has previously denied the allegations – said: “Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.”