Cardinal Keith O'Brien has been sacked by the Pope, rather than left to retire

At last winds of change blow through the Vatican

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Make no mistake about it, Cardinal Keith O’Brien has not resigned as Scotland’s leading Roman Catholic. He has been sacked by the Pope. And that is a measure of just how grave the crisis in the world’s biggest church has become.

Cardinal O’Brien was due to retire next month anyway because he will then be 75. The usual drill is for a bishop to hand in his resignation to the Pope a few months ahead of the due date and for it to be accepted nunc pro tunc, which in Latin means “now for later”. The cardinal handed in his resignation back in November expecting it to take effect later this year.

The Pope’s decision that he must stand down forthwith came just one day after a newspaper report that three priests and one ex-priest from his diocese have complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, the nuncio Antonio Mennini, making alleging “inappropriate behaviour” towards them in the 1980s.

All this adds to the sense of crisis gripping the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, still reeling from a papal resignation unprecedented in almost 700 years. To add to that, the Pope himself in his Ash Wednesday address condemned the manoeuvring of factions within the Church who seem hellbent on overshadowing all the good it does in social action and ethical reflection.

And only last Friday the punch drunk Church was told by the respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica that a report commissioned from three senior cardinals into the Vatileaks scandal claimed that there is a gay mafia within the Vatican curia involving several cardinals and sexual shenanigans in a Rome sauna. The paper reported that only one copy of the report exists and that it shocked Pope Benedict so much that he locked it in a safe and left it for his successor to handle.

There are signs in the forcing-out of Cardinal O’Brien that change is possible within the Church. The outgoing Pope has been firmer in dealing with what he described as the sex-abusing clerical “filth” in the Church than his predecessor Pope John Paul II, even if he has handled it behind closed doors.

But the latest developments show something new in the Church with priests daring for the first time to complain openly about the behaviour of the bishops upon whom they depend for ecclesiastical preferment. Perhaps the winds of change truly are beginning to blow through the windows of the Vatican.

Not before time.

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