The American way with criminals is at times barbaric. Take the case of Ronnie Lee Gardner, executed by firing squad after 25 years of near-solitary confinement

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and leader of the Church in Scotland, is one of the most outspoken prelates in the United Kingdom. He fights for social justice and teaches an uncompromising but compassionate Catholicism. He has been especially frank in his attacks on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research

Now he has stirred things up again. Good. Over the weekend the cardinal “intervened”, as they say, in the dispute over the release last year on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, who was jailed in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing. In an article in Scotland on Sunday the cardinal defended the release of Megrahi in the strongest terms and spoke of America’s “culture of vengeance”.

“At the core of this dispute,” he wrote, “there seems to be what might be termed a ‘clash of cultures’. In Scotland over many years we have cultivated through our justice system what I hope can be described as a ‘culture of compassion’. On the other hand, there still exists in many parts of the US, if not nationally, an attitude towards the concept of justice which can only be described as a ‘culture of vengeance’ “.

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There is of course a lot more to America than the culture of vengeance, as Cardinal O’Brien indicated, but the American way with criminals is at times barbaric. The cardinal cited the case of a murderer, Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was executed by firing squad in Utah in June this year after spending 25 years in jail in near-solitary confinement.

Gardner was first picked up by the authorities at the age of two, abandoned, wandering the streets in a nappy. He was sniffing glue by the time he was six, taking heroin at 10 and sent to a mental home at 11 where he was sexually abused. “His descent into violence was as predictable as it was piteous,” said Cardinal O’Brien.

The culture of vengeance is perhaps understandable in the case of some relatives of the victims, as the cardinal acknowledged, but not all the relatives are thirsting for revenge. Dr Jim Swire, from Windsor, whose daughter Flora was one of those who died over Lockerbie, welcomed the cardinal’s intervention. He told the Scotsman: “We should look for justice rather than vengeance. I agree with him [the cardinal] in criticising that culture.”

Meanwhile, the redoubtable John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, has taken the cardinal’s latest intervention as an opportunity to congratulate him both on his silver jubilee as a bishop and his courageous battle against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

The cardinal is what you might call a pro-life all-rounder. Only a year ago, in an article in the Times, he said that the decision to retain Trident was “immoral”. And it gets better. The cardinal is also a defender of liturgical tradition. Some rather stern traditionalist might regard him as a modernist, but I don’t think you would find mainstream traditionalist priests among them. In June this year he at any rate preached at Mass in the Extraordinary Form in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. It was the first Mass to be said in his home town by Fr Simon Harkins of the FSSP. Go here.

It’s surprising the cardinal hasn’t got a Facebook fan club. Oh, wait. He has, here.

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