ROMAN Catholics in the Borders have been left shocked and saddened by the allegations of inappropriate behaviour levelled at Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
That was the view of senior figures from the local Roman Catholic community, speaking this week as Borders Catholics, readying themselves for the appointment of a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, now have to come to terms with the loss of their own cardinal after his sudden resignation on Monday.
Cardinal O’Brien, now ex-Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, is noticeable by his absence from this week’s events in Rome, where church’s leaders have gathered for the conclave to elect a new pope, as the 85-year-old Pope Benedict steps down today, becoming the first pontiff in more than 600 years to resign.
A frequent visitor to the Borders, the cardinal has been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards priests in the 1980s – allegations he contests.
Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric announced his resignation would take effect on Monday, following the allegations in the Observer newspaper on Sunday.
Cardinal O’Brien had already tendered his resignation back in November in view of his looming 75th birthday next month, and it had been accepted by the pope with the formula ‘nunc pro tunc’, meaning ‘now for later’.
However, given the pope’s own decision to resign, the leader of the global Catholic church decided to accept Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation with immediate effect.
Reacting to the pope’s decision, Cardinal O’Brien said he had valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest.
“Looking back over my years of ministry: for any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended,” he said.
Joe Walsh, the Catholic church representative on Scottish Borders Council’s education committee, told TheSouthern that Catholics in the Borders had been left “totally confused” by developments.
“Cardinal O’Brien is a very genuine and caring man – a very special man,” an emotional Mr Walsh said.
“He is very down to earth and can speak to anyone, to all sorts of people. As far as these allegations are concerned – and it must be remembered these are unproven – I just can’t believe it.
“I heard about this during a mass in Edinburgh and people were in tears.”
However, Mr Walsh, who has worked closely with Cardinal O’Brien since becoming the church’s representative on the local education committee in 2000, says the strength of spirit in the Catholic community in the region will see it through these difficult times.
“It means there is no senior leader of the church in Scotland at the moment, but I think whoever becomes the new pope will want to deal with things quite quickly.”
Cardinal O’Brien studied for the priesthood at the former St Andrew’s College, at Drygrange, near Melrose, and was ordained in April 1965.
A fellow Drygrange student ordained at the same time was Canon John Creanor, parish priest of Galashiels for 16 years and, since last year, priest of Our Lady of the Sea in North Berwick.
“I have known Keith O’Brien for 55 years and in that time he has been a good friend and a good pastor,” said Canon Creanor.
“He is someone who will always go the extra mile for you and personally, I don’t feel he deserves this, at this stage in his life.
“I was actually at a mass in Dunbar at the weekend, getting ready to send him off to Rome, and he never mentioned anything like this.
“It is just so unfair and I still regard myself as his friend.”