The news that Cardinal Keith O'Brien is to resign from his position as Archbishop of St Andrew's and Edinburgh a little early, because of allegations of improper behaviour by him against priests of his diocese is a cause of great sadness - for all concerned. He denies the allegations, and says his resignation is only in order not to draw media attention away from the real business of choosing the next Pope.
That seems to me an honourable thing to do.The media (in this country at least - I wonder whether the rest of the world has taken much notice) would always remember that the next Pope was elected partly by a "tainted cardinal." That would hardly help anyone. Could one vote out of 115 really be the difference between a good Pope and a bad one?
Of course only time will tell whether the charges against Cardinal O'Brien are substantiated, though I suspect they are of a kind which it would be very difficult to prove in court, so we may never really find out. It's unclear what is actually alleged - "inappropriate approach/contact" and "unwanted behaviour" could mean any number of things, though they imply something far less than outright sexual assault, for example. Whilst all have sinned and fallen short, clearly certain standards are expected of a bishop. The allegations perhaps have more to do with hypocrisy and abuse of power than sexual misdemeanors as such, and to that extent are very serious indeed when applied to a leading figure in the Church.
And herein lies the wider problem for the Roman Catholic Church, one which I hope will be addressed in the choosing of the next Pope. For a great deal of what has undermined the Church is to do with abuse of power. We might remember that it was abuse of power which led to the Reformation in the first place - the Protest was first and foremost against selling indulgences to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. In recent years, the scandal over child abuse by priests would not be half as bad if the institutional Church had not done so much, for so long, to try to cover these things up. Insult really has been added to injury, and abusers have been allowed to carry on abusing (and I'm aware that the Church of England has not been entirely without fault, as the situation in Chichester Diocese attests, for example).
To a modern Western mindset which is inclined to question all sources of authority, abuses of power are particularly damaging. Only if the source of authority comes well out of the questioning can it hope to have any credibility. And one of the questions must be "how is that authority being used?" The result of recent papacies has been to concentrate power in the Vatican. This not only means that there is likely to be a disconnect between the faithful on the front-line and those in charge (shades of the trenches in WW1 anyone?), it also means that blame rests where authority does. Failings in one diocese make the world-wide Church look bad. Popes who want total control need to accept total responsibility too. That hasn't usually happened.
So the crisis for the Roman Catholic Church must be over the approach the next Pope takes. Either assume full responsibility with the power, or decentralize the whole thing, move lots of decision-making away from the Vatican, and make it much more flexible and responsive. I know which I think should happen. I fear neither will.
But at least Cardinal O'Brien, in openly saying that priests might be allowed to marry, and in resigning quickly rather than thinking himself above criticism, has shown the kind of options which might restore the credibility of the Bishops of Rome. He's unlikely to be elected.