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Top British cleric accused of ‘inappropriate acts’

LONDON — Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has been accused of committing ‘‘inappropriate acts’’ in his relations with three priests and one former priest, the Observer newspaper reported Sunday. The accusations, which date to the 1980s, have been forwarded to the Vatican.

The newspaper said that the four men had made their complaints to the pope’s diplomatic representative in Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, and that the complaints had reached Mennini in the week before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Feb. 11.

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The timing of the Observer’s article, which was apparently drawn from church sources with access to the file that Mennini had forwarded to Rome, became an immediate focus of attention.

Reports from Rome in recent days have described the feverish speculation — and intrigue, according to Vatican insiders — surrounding the next pope, who is set to be chosen by a conclave of 117 eligible cardinals, among them O’Brien, scheduled to convene at the Vatican sometime in March. Benedict’s resignation takes effect Thursday.

The Catholic Church has been besieged during Benedict’s eight years in office by scandals over pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse by priests. But the three weeks since he announced his decision to retire on the grounds of failing health have been marked by a surge of Italian news media reports, many of them speculative, of gay sex scandals in the Vatican and other allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

These reports have been seen by some in the Vatican as intended to harm some contenders for the papacy, or to disqualify some of the cardinals expected to participate in the conclave. Some Vatican experts believe they might also be devised to manufacture a sense of crisis that would encourage the conclave to select a conservative, ‘‘sheriff’’ type of cardinal as the next pope. O’Brien, who is set to retire after turning 75 next month, is the only cleric from Britain who will be eligible to vote in the conclave.

On Saturday, the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a statement strongly rebuking recent reports in the Italian news media, calling them a dangerous attempt to try to condition the cardinal electors. The Vatican called it ‘‘deplorable’’ that ahead of the conclave there was ‘‘a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories, that cause serious damage to persons and institutions.’’

O’Brien had been scheduled to lead a Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sunday morning, an occasion dedicated to a celebration of Benedict’s time in the papacy. But he did not appear for the Mass. Instead, a statement was made on his behalf by Bishop Stephen Robson, an auxiliary prelate in the Edinburgh diocese.

‘’A number of allegations of inappropriate behavior have been made against the cardinal,’’ the church statement said. ‘‘The cardinal has sought legal advice, and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time. There will be further statements in due course.’’

The Observer article said that one of the four men involved in the complaints against the cardinal had later left the priesthood and married, unable to reconcile himself to the idea of spending a lifetime under O’Brien’s authority. According to the newspaper, the man accused the cardinal of having made an ‘‘inappropriate approach’’ to him after night prayers when he was an 18-year-old seminarian in 1980, when O’Brien, then a priest, was his spiritual director at a seminary in Melrose, south of Edinburgh.

Another of the complainants, who is still a priest, was said to have complained about inappropriate contact between him and then-Rev. O’Brien during a parish visit. The third complainant, another priest, was said to have been invited to spend a week ‘‘getting to know’’ the cardinal, by that time an archbishop, at his residence in Edinburgh, and having to deal with ‘‘unwanted attention’’ from the senior cleric after a late-night drinking session.

The fourth man was said to have had his own experience of inappropriate contact when, in the early years of his priesthood, he sought counseling over personal problems from O’Brien, then an archbishop.

O’Brien, whose office said he would keep to his scheduled plan to fly to Rome before the conclave on Tuesday, has been the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland since 1985, and was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He was among the cardinals who attended the conclave that chose Benedict as John Paul’s successor in 2005.

Once called ‘‘Cardinal Controversy’’ by his critics, O’Brien has frequently spoken out on homosexuality, adopting a more censorious attitude in recent years. Before his elevation to cardinal, he spoke publicly about the number of gay priests in the church and rebuked another Scottish bishop who had said that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in Catholic schools.

But in more recent years, he has hardened his stance, opposing gay rights and describing homosexuality as immoral. He has opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to adopt children. He has also argued against same-sex marriage, which the British Parliament is in the process of approving, calling it ‘‘harmful to the spiritual, mental and spiritual well-being’’ of those involved. Last November, Stonewall, a British gay-rights group, gave the cardinal its ‘‘bigot of the year’’ award.

O’Brien has broken with other strictures that are common among conservatives in the church hierarchy. He drew headlines in Britain last week by telling the BBC that a new pope should consider abandoning the church’s rule on celibacy. ‘‘It is a free world,’’ he said, ‘‘and I realize that many priests have found it difficult to cope with celibacy and felt the need of a companion, a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.’’

Stepping directly into the contentious maneuvering over who should be the next pope, he suggested that ‘‘it might be time for a younger pontiff from part of the developing world,’’ perhaps from Africa or Asia, ‘‘where the Catholic faith is thriving.’’

He added, ‘‘It is something which the cardinals have to think about seriously, having had popes from Europe for such a long time now — hundreds of years — whether it is time to think of the developing world as being a source of excellent men.’’

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