VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The Vatican on Wednesday ordered a disgraced Scottish cardinal to leave Scotland for several months to pray and atone for sexual misconduct, issuing a rare public sanction against a "prince of the church" and the first such punishment meted out by Pope Francis.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and recused himself from the March conclave that elected Francis pope 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 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 didn't specify that the decision was imposed on O'Brien by the Vatican as punishment, and in fact went out of its way to suggest that the decision was O'Brien's. But in the past, wayward priests have been sanctioned by the Vatican with punishments of "prayer and penance," and the statement made clear Francis supported the move and that the Holy See would decide his future fate.
Such a sanction is very much in keeping with the church's legal tradition of making a public reparation for a scandal done to the church, said Austen Ivereigh, director of the Catholic Voices, a British-based Catholic advocacy group.
"Because there has been a public scandal, there has to be a public reparation in some way, and it is normal for somebody to be sent away," he said in a phone interview. "This is very much in that canonical tradition of making public reparation."
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 U.S. church's sex abuse crisis: Law resigned in disgrace 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 has not been accused of abusing minors, his case had been watched to see if Francis would dare take any action against a senior cardinal who had strayed.
The issue is delicate, given O'Brien's rank, but the message the Vatican sent Wednesday was clear.
"For a senior church member to be asked to leave the place of his residence for a period of penance and prayer, it's about as a strong a sanction as you can get before the standard canonical penalties about laicization" kick in, said Ivereigh. Laicization, or removing someone from the priesthood, might have been foreseen if he had sexually abused minors, but that doesn't apply in this case, he said.
The Vatican has refused to even confirm whether it was investigating the allegations against O'Brien, even though the Scottish Catholic Church's media office said the complaints had been forwarded to Rome and 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 long planned to retire, but that Scottish bishops wanted him out of the country given the damage the revelations 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.
"There is little doubt that the credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been dealt a serious blow, and we will need to come to terms with that," Tartaglia said in a March 4 homily after O'Brien resigned.