VATICAN CITY — The Scottish cardinal who resigned as archbishop after admitting to sexual misconduct will leave Scotland for several months of prayer and atonement, the Vatican said Wednesday in a rare sanction against a ‘‘prince of the church.’’
Cardinal Keith O’Brien recused himself from the March conclave that elected Pope Francis after a newspaper reported unnamed priests’ allegations that he acted inappropriately toward them. O’Brien subsequently acknowledged he had engaged in unspecified sexual misbehavior. He resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, apologized, and promised to stay out of the church’s public life.
On Wednesday, the Vatican said O’Brien, once Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader, would leave Scotland for several months of ‘‘spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance’’ for the same reasons he decided not to participate in the conclave.
The statement did not specify that the arrangements were imposed on O’Brien by the Vatican as punishment. But in the past, wayward priests have been sanctioned by the Vatican with punishments of ‘‘prayer and penance,’’ suggesting that this was indeed a sanction. The Vatican said his departure was done ‘‘in agreement with the Holy Father.’’
The issue is significant because victims of clerical abuse have long denounced the lack of accountability among the church hierarchy for having covered up the crimes of pedophile priests. In the church, bishops and cardinals have long been virtually untouchable.
Take American Cardinal Bernard Law, whose cover-up of pedophile priests in Boston was at the root of the US church’s sex abuse crisis: Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, but he was given a plum job as archpriest of one of the Vatican’s prime basilicas in Rome.
Even though O’Brien is not known to be accused of abusing minors, his case had been watched to see if Pope Francis would take any action against a cardinal who had strayed.
The Vatican has refused to confirm whether it was investigating the allegations against O’Brien, even though the Scottish Catholic Church’s media office said that it expected an investigation.
The Vatican spokesman declined to provide further explanation Wednesday and the spokesman for the Scottish church declined to comment beyond the Vatican statement. O’Brien was unavailable, the Scottish church said.
Scottish media reported that after his resignation, O’Brien moved his belongings into a church-owned property in Dunbar where he had planned to retire, but that Scottish bishops wanted him out of the country given the damage the disclosures had caused the church’s credibility.
The Herald newspaper reported that bishops had complained to the Vatican, asking it to take action for the sake of the faithful, after O’Brien was seen in public in Scotland.
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, who is running the archdiocese until a successor to O’Brien is named, has spoken of the outrage directed at the church for the ‘‘hypocrisy’’ O’Brien’s case revealed.
O’Brien was vehemently outspoken in his opposition to gay rights, condemning homosexuality and calling same-sex marriage ‘‘a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.’’ Last year, the gay rights group Stonewall named O’Brien ‘‘Bigot of the Year.’’
That he then admitted to engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with men prompted gay rights groups to demand an apology.