Pope under fire as disgraced anti-gay cleric quits as cardinal

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis came under fire on Friday after accepting the de facto resignation of a British cardinal disgraced in a sex scandal without any follow-up on the allegations against him.

A statement from the Vatican said Francis had accepted British former archbishop Keith O'Brien's resignation of the rights and privileges of a cardinal in a highly unusual move for which the last precedent dates from 1927.

It came two years after O'Brien stepped down as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, having admitted inappropriate sexual behaviour towards priests in the 1980s.

At the time of his resignation, O'Brien was the most senior Catholic churchman in Britain and an outspoken critic of homosexuality -- which he described as a "moral degradation" -- and gay marriage.

He was exposed as a hypocrite when several priests who had been in his charge, one of whom had left the priesthood, came forward with testimony that he had made unwanted sexual advances to them, often after late night drinking sessions.

In a statement, the Vatican said the resignation had been presented "after a long period of prayer" -- a formulation which means the matter was dealt with by the pope personally, without reference to an internal church court.

"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," the statement added.

SNAP, a global campaign group on the issue of clerical sex abuse which counts many victims among its activists, said the pope's handling of the issue was tantamount to a cover up.

"As it has done with dozens of abusive prelates, the Vatican is disclosing nothing about O'Brien's wrongdoing," SNAP spokeswoman Barbara Dorris said.

"There's no transparency here. Not one Catholic official has disclosed anything of substance about O'Brien's misdeeds.

"And what of his clerical colleagues? Not one of them knew of or suspected that O'Brien was abusing others?"

- Report kept secret -

O'Brien repeated the public apology he made in March 2013.

"I then said that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me. For that I am deeply sorry.

"I thank Pope Francis for his fatherly care of me and of those I have offended in any way."

The Vatican ruling allows O'Brien to remain a priest and keep the formal title of cardinal, but he is no longer allowed to take part in any church forums, loses his status as an adviser to the pope and will not be eligible for any conclave to elect a future pope.

The pope's decision to accept O'Brien's resignation follows a private discussion between the two men and the submission of a report by papal emissary Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who went on a fact-finding trip to Scotland last year.

The report's contents have not been made public. That and the length of time it has taken to reach a decision on O'Brien's status has seen the Church come under fire in Scotland, including from one of O'Brien's alleged victims.

The unnamed priest told Scotland's Daily Record last week that: "Scicluna's report must have burnt the varnish off the desk, but the Vatican can move at a glacial speed when it wants."

The former archbishop is spending his retirement living in self-imposed exile from Scotland in northern England in a house reportedly paid for by the Church.

The last time a pope divested a member of the College of Cardinals of his powers was in September 1927 when Pope Pius XI demanded and got the resignation of Jesuit cleric Louis Billot who had become embroiled in French fascist group Action Francaise.