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 a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
The cardinals met Monday, without O'Brien, for the first of their pre-conclave meetings.
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.
Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill said Monday that the gay-rights 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."
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.
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.
Despite his views on same-sex relationships, O'Brien was long known for his relatively liberal stance on some social issues.
Shortly after he was named cardinal in 2003, O'Brien made an unusual public pledge to defend Roman Catholic Church teaching, having previously suggested there should be more open discussion on issues such as the requirement of celibacy for priests and the church's ban on contraception.
The cardinal largely kept those views to himself over the next decade, although he reiterated them in an interview with the BBC just before the allegations against him emerged. O'Brien told the broadcaster that he was open to priests marrying and having children.
"The celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry — Jesus didn't say that," he said in the interview last month. "When I was a young boy, the priest didn't get married and that was it. I would be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should get married."
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