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It was yet another turbulent day for the Vatican as Great Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric announced his resignation. That means he will not be taking part in the election of a new pope. Cardinal Keith O'Brien has been accused of behaving inappropriately toward several priests. His immediate departure comes as the pope himself prepares to retire. Benedict XVI stands down Thursday.
We're joined from London by NPR's Philip Reeves. Hi there, Philip.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: Now, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, he's the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland. And this resignation, I gather, has been shocking for people. Explain what happened.
REEVES: Well, yesterday Britain's Observer newspaper reported allegations by three unnamed priests and one former priest, claiming that Cardinal O'Brien made inappropriate approaches dating back some three decades. Now, it's important to say that Cardinal O'Brien has strongly denied this. And, in fact, immediately called in his lawyers. But today came the announcement that O'Brien is resigning as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in Scotland with immediate effect and that the pope had accepted his resignation.
O'Brien released a statement which did not refer to the allegations. In it, he thanked God for any good that he'd done. But he also apologized for what he called any failures and to all whom he'd offended.
CORNISH: We mentioned that this has stirred up some shock. But really, I mean, these allegations have been around. Was Cardinal O'Brien expected to step down?
REEVES: Well, he was due to retire next month when he turned 75. But the date has been moved forward and that's what's significant - the timing of this - right after those allegations were published. It's a surprise too because it's kind of out of character. You know, he's not the retiring type. He's outspoken. He's been particularly vocal in his opposition, for example, to same-sex marriage and abortion. In fact, a gay rights charity last year named him as its bigot of the year.
CORNISH: So how significant is this for the Vatican?
REEVES: I think it's serious. No matter what is the truth of the matter, you know, it froze the spotlight on yet more scandal in the Catholic Church and on the behavior of senior clerics. This at a time when the Vatican actually wants the world to focus on paying tributes to the outgoing Pope Benedict and on the issue of his replacement. This is also a big setback, by the way, for Britain's Catholics as they have no one representing them now in the vote for the next pope.
CORNISH: And, of course, what is this going to mean for the conclave that's supposed to elect the pope?
REEVES: Well, very importantly, Cardinal O'Brien says he's not go away as he doesn't want media attention to focus on him, and not on the outgoing and incoming popes. This will very likely add to the pressure on several other cardinals elsewhere who are facing demands for them not to take part, because of their handling of abuse scandals. These include, of course, Cardinal Roger Mahony, for example, of Los Angeles.
CORNISH: Now, Phil, I just want to ask one more thing. I understand today that the pope made a change in church law, so that conclave of cardinals - who will elect the next pope - can actually start their work a little bit earlier. What's going on there?
REEVES: Yes, that's right. Usually before a new pope is elected, the Vatican allows a certain period for mourning, for the passing of his predecessor. I understand in recent history that's generally meant a 15-today interregnum. This time, of course, for the first time in centuries, the pope has resigned rather than died. So there's no need for mourning period.
The Vatican's clearly eager to have a successor to Pope Benedict in place quickly. The longer they leave this, the more rumors and intrigue will flourish. The church is also keen to have a new pontiff in place by Easter, I think, because that's obviously a most sacred period in the Christian calendar. So they're rewriting the rulebook.
CORNISH: NPR's Philip Reeves in London. Philip, thank you.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.