LONDON — A Scottish cardinal who stepped down from church leadership after admitting sexual misconduct should apologize to gay people for his years of "vicious and cruel language" about them, Britain's leading gay-rights group said Monday.
Officials in the Vatican refused to say whether they would formally investigate allegations against Cardinal Keith O'Brien. He resigned last week as Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric after being accused of inappropriate behavior by three priests and a former priest.
Until his abrupt resignation as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, O'Brien had been due to join cardinals from around the world in Rome for a conclave that will elect Benedict XVI's successor as pope.
The cardinals met Monday, without O'Brien, for the first of their pre-conclave meetings, while the disgraced cardinal's temporary replacement – Archbishop Philip Tartaglia – told a congregation in the Scottish city of Glasgow that the moral authority of his church in Scotland has been dealt a big blow.
"The most stinging charge which has been leveled against us in this matter is hypocrisy," Tartaglia said late Monday. "And for obvious reasons."
O'Brien has not directly addressed the allegations against him, which include "an inappropriate approach" to a seminarian after night prayers and "inappropriate contact" with another priest.
But he said Sunday that "my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal."
"To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness," he said.
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights organization Stonewall, said Monday that the group noted "with sadness that the cardinal didn't find it in him to apologize to gay people, their families and friends for the harm his vicious and cruel language caused."
That view was echoed by veteran human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who urged the cardinal "to show true remorse for his homophobia and hypocrisy by saying sorry to the gay community for the hatred and harm he has caused – and by publicly repenting his homophobia."
O'Brien, 74, had been a staunch advocate of church teaching against homosexuality, calling same-sex marriage "a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and saying that British government plans to legalize same-sex marriage would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world."
Last year, Stonewall named O'Brien "Bigot of the Year" for his hard line on homosexuality.
The Scottish Catholic Media Office said the complaints against O'Brien had been reported to the Vatican, and it expected there would be an investigation.
The Vatican refused to confirm or deny Monday whether it was investigating O'Brien, and declined to say when it learned of the allegations against him. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, repeated his statement from last week, which was that the original four accusers had sent their complaint via the papal ambassador to Britain, and the pope had been informed.
Pressed to respond to reports of a purported fifth accuser, who reportedly approached the Vatican directly in October with accusations, another spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, read O'Brien's statement and said the Vatican would say no more.
Another British cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, said Monday that the claims against O'Brien weren't necessarily evidence that the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church – which has been wracked by scandals over sexual abuse by priests – was in need of deep reform.
"There's always been sinners in the church but there's always been saints," he told BBC radio from Rome.
Murphy-O'Connor – who, at 80, is too old to vote in the conclave – said that while sometimes wrongdoing was the responsibility of the church, "sometimes it is just the weakness of individuals and the wrong that they do."
"To say that this is all in the church, I just don't think it is true," he said.
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless