LONDON -- On the same day as his last public blessing Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI confronted the threat of a fresh scandal within the church hierarchy, with Vatican officials informing him of new allegations that Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric had engaged in inappropriate behavior with priests.
In Britain, the accusations against Cardinal Keith O'Brien, 74, -- head of the church in Scotland and one of this nation's most strident opponents of gay rights -- were already escalating into a national furor. The controversy revolved around a report first published Saturday night on the website of Britain's Observer newspaper, saying that four men -- three current priests and one former priest -- had denounced Cardinal O'Brien earlier this month for engaging in "inappropriate" and "intimate" behavior.
Through a spokesman, Cardinal O'Brien denied the charges and said he was seeking legal counsel.
The allegations could rock the church at a highly sensitive time, highlighting a Vatican in crisis as its cardinals begin to gather in Rome to pick the pope's successor after his surprise resignation earlier this month.
The exact nature and timing of the alleged contact, which the Observer said was reported to the Vatican's emissary in London a week before the pope's Feb. 11 resignation, were not spelled out. But one of the alleged victims claimed that Cardinal O'Brien had started a "relationship" with him in the 1980s that resulted in the need for long-term counseling. Another of the men said Cardinal O'Brien had initiated "inappropriate contact" during nightly prayers, according to the paper.
Poised to join the upcoming conclave to elect a new pope, Cardinal O'Brien missed Sunday Mass in his dioceses of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. His auxiliary, Bishop Stephen Robson, read a statement in Edinburgh, saying: "A number of allegations of inappropriate behavior have been made against the cardinal. The cardinal has sought legal advice and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time. There will be further statements in due course."
The Vatican also declined to confirm details of the allegations against the cardinal, saying only that the pope had been informed of the "problem" on Sunday and the matter was now "in the hands" of Benedict.
In Britain, the Observer report was considered additionally explosive because of Cardinal O'Brien's public stance on homosexuality. Last year, he decried a campaign to legalize same-sex marriage as a "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right." He has described homosexuality as immoral and was singled out by the London-based gay advocacy group Stonewall for a 2012 "bigot of the year" award.
His allies, however, said judgment should be reserved until a full airing of the facts. "These allegations have not been proved in any way," Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former archbishop of Westminster, told the BBC. "So I think he will have to decide whether he goes or not" to the conclave. "We must listen first of all to what he has to say."