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Vatican invited Cardinal Keith O’Brien to conclave despite knowledge of sexual allegations by Catholic priests

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Cardinal Keith O'Brien

When news broke this week that Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, had been accused by four priests of sexual exploitation both his critics and supporters were instantly suspicious of the timing.

Why now, they asked? Pope Benedict's dramatic resignation was barely a week old and the papal conclave was already looming. How could accusations this damning have come to light just at this moment (especially considering O'Brien had Britain's only vote for Pope)? It was an a reasonable question.

The answer, which came yesterday, probably isn't going to satisfy the conspiracy theorists, but it's a fairly convincing one. In a desperate attempt to minimize the impact, the pope moved quickly to stem the crisis before it could snowball.

That led to O'Brien standing down as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh the day after the Observer newspaper published accusations about his conduct during the 1980's.

O'Brien's departure was shocking but it was also inevitable, given the widespread media interest and the Pope's growing determination to protect the Church from the seemingly endless parade of scandals that have engulfed it for two decades.

But yesterday the Scotsman newspaper reported that in fact the Vatican knew of the allegations against O'Brien at least five months ago. The newspaper claimed a priest lodged a serious complaint in October 2012 about 'inappropriate behavior' by the former Archbishop in 2001.

The Vatican reportedly took the allegations seriously and quietly contacted Cardinal O’Brien. It's understood a 'deal' was in the process of being negotiated by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Montreal for O'Brien's departure as leader of Scotland’s Catholics.

News that the complaint was being addressed finally prompted three other to come forward with their own stories. 'It gave them the confidence that they would be heard,' a source told the Scotsman. 'It started people talking and it gave them the confidence. It took someone to put his head above the parapet.'

Meanwhile, in news that has further angered his critics, it has emerged that the Vatican's invitation to O'Brien to attend the papal conclave to choose Benedict's successor still stands, but he has declined himself because he says: 'I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me.'

It is not yet clear if he has resigned from the College of Cardinals; no Cardinal has since 1927.

O'Brien's decision to not to participate stands in sharp contrast to Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, who reportedly intends to participate in the conclave even after more than 30,000 pages of personnel records released last month revealed that for years he had been directly involved in covering up for priests who were known to have abused children and teenagers.

O’Brien, a staunch critic of homosexuality, called same-sex marriage 'a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.' He even argued that argued that 'same-sex relations are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual well-being of those involved.'

But perhaps now, near the end, he'll finally come to learn after 75 years that it's actually a life hidden deep in the closet that thwarts the emotional and spiritual well-being of those who spent their conflicted adult lives trapped within it. 

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