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We are right to feel compassion for Cardinal O’Brien: all the same, let there be no facile excuses for what he has done and what he has been

He should never have been given his red hat. He had made it clear that he did not support the teaching authority of the Church

By on Thursday, 7 March 2013

Media outside the cardinal's residence last month (Photo: PA)

Media outside the cardinal's residence last month (Photo: PA)

Baroness [Helena] Kennedy says she feels “huge compassion” for Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Well, so do I, however angry one can hardly avoid feeling over the huge damage he has done to the Church. Baroness Kennedy says her compassion is a result of the “torture” he has suffered though his commitment to celibacy. “I feel very sad for Cardinal O’Brien,” she says, “because here was a man who quite clearly had wanted to have a sexual life and felt that it was a failing for him to want to have a sexual life and that he was going against his commitment to celibacy.” That’s the secular view, of course, and I don’t intend at this point to get into a defence of celibacy: this is a Catholic site, and my readers are already familiar with the many justifications for what is one of the most priceless gifts that God has given the Church. His difficulties with celibacy are certainly not why I, too, am sorry for the cardinal, or why I find it unpleasant to have to rehearse once more why he should never have been given his red hat in the first place; it’s unpleasant because it is altogether too much like kicking a man when he is down. But it has to be done.

Part of the point is that the signs were already there. It is certainly the case that recently he has appeared to be absolutely on message on such topics as civil partnerships and gay “marriage”, and when he was nominated “bigot of the year” in last year’s Stonewall awards, some of us thought, well done, all is forgiven: maybe he really has changed. One has, now, to wonder, however, about all that: for this is clearly a man who is either deeply confused or something worse: Archbishop Tartaglia has rightly said that Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation and admissions of sexual misconduct have left the Church open to the “most stinging charge” of hypocrisy.

Either way, it is now clear not only that it was, as many of us thought at the time, distinctly risky to give him his red hat: more; it is pretty clear with hindsight that he should never have been a bishop, and probably a priest, either. And there are at least five, and probably more, Scottish Catholic priests who 30 years ago knew enough about Keith O’Brien to have prevented his episcopal preferment in the first place. That’s when they should have intervened: not at the very last minute when it was bound to cause the maximum damage to the Church without doing any conceivable good. Cardinal O’Brien, we now know, had already been sent for, last November, by Cardinal Ouellet (prefect of the Congregation of Bishops) and told he had to resign on reaching the age of 75: that was the way to handle the problem. I repudiate the modern fad for “openness”: denouncing him before the anti-Catholic multitudes has done no good to anyone except the tabloid press, and a very great deal of harm to the Church. To handle such matters discreetly isn’t remotely to say there should have been a “cover-up”: it’s to say that such matters should not be touted about for the prurient gratification of those who have absolutely no business to know about them in the first place.

Even if the cardinal had gone to the conclave, he could have done no actual harm. There is an interesting story on Sandro Magister’s website about his activities at the last one. I normally regard those who claim to know what happened in some past conclave with complete scepticism; usually they are simply making it up. But Magister is different: he does usually have very good sources. Cardinals swear, of course, an absolute vow of secrecy about what happens behind the closed doors of a papal conclave. But we all know about the legendary tendency, irresistible to most Italian clergy, towards gossip: cardinals do chatter, oath or no oath: and Magister has the following this week. He is writing about Cardinals O’Brien, Mahony and Danneels (the last two of whom some think should also, for not dissimilar reasons, have stayed away from the conclave):

“For all three, the matters of accusation concern that ‘filth’ against which pope Ratzinger fought his strenuous battle. Mahony and Danneels have so far resisted expulsion, but within the college of cardinals their authoritativeness is already practically nil.

“And yet, just a few years ago, the three were on the crest of the wave. Among the nine votes that Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the flagship candidate of the progressive cardinals opposed to the election of Ratzinger, received in the first scrutiny of the conclave of 2005, there were precisely those of O’Brien, Mahony, and Danneels.” But it was all for nothing: they did no harm.

That information may or may not be accurate; but it does seem to chime remarkably well with what we do know of Cardinal O’Brien’s judgment on the kind of candidate who ought to be pushed forward for high ecclesiastical office. In 1999, at the European Synod of Bishops, he declared his candidate to be the next Archbishop of Westminster, following the death of Cardinal Hume. It was Fr Timothy Radcliffe, Master General of the Dominican Order, who at the same Synod, had said the following: “There is a crisis of authority going on in the Church, but the answer cannot be more emphasis on authority”. In the presence of Pope John Paul, Fr Radcliffe went on: “the Church should not only speak about the poor, the divorced people, women who have had an abortion, homosexuals, but also take at heart their experiences, eat their bread, take what they have to offer”. “They’ll blame us being associated with the wrong people but we have a good precedent.”

It all fits together, somehow. All the time, behind the public façade erected by this “bigot of the year” was a very different reality. It will be remembered that he had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Church’s teachings before being given his red hat; and we were beginning to think he was taking it seriously. The first crack in the façade was when he reverted publicly to the views on celibacy he had supposedly renounced when he took his red hat vows: then the dam broke; and his absolute ruin followed. It is all very sad. The Scottish Church is still reeling. And Cardinal O’Brien himself has undoubtedly become a deeply tragic figure, whose reputation can never now be recovered. We are right to feel compassion for him. All the same, let there be no facile excuses for what he has done and for what he has been.

  • Benedict Carter

    Deleted by author.

  • scary goat

     When I first came across the SSPX information and had my eyes opened to a lot of things I hadn’t previously known, I wanted an opinion I could trust, neither a hostile liberal opinion, nor that of SSPX priests themselves. I was afraid of bias from either side, so I went for advice to a known traditional priest in the mainstream.  I asked him about a lot of things and he was very SSPX friendly.  He said they are right about a lot of things.  He asked me why I had gone to him rather than my own parish priest for advice…I said because I didn’t know what his views were and I was afraid of being in the dog-house.  The priest laughed and said you’d be surprised how many hold the same views as me actually….although they don’t advertise it.

    I don’t know about scrapping VII…..maybe…at some point in the future…that’s beyond the scope of my knowledge.  For the time being, what would seem to be necessary is for the Vatican to make sufficient concessions to the SSPX point of view to enable them to sign on the dotted line….for example clarifying the disputed documents so that there can be no ambiguous interpretations.  If there could actually be enough common ground for full reconciliation, once we have them back on “the inside” it becomes a whole different ball game. 

    Let’s wait and see what happens with the new Pope.

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes indeed Scary/

    The documents MUST be clarified. There’s no point whatever in saying “These docs can only be interpreted in the light of tradition so there is no discontinuity” when the docs flatly contradict Tradition! 

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Thanks for your considered reply.
    Without wanting to kill a deal it would be better if two thirds of the clergy agreed, within SPXX, to the terms of an arrangement and concordat, otherwise the SPXX, would itself split again.
     Without robust debate within SPXX such a number could not be achieved.
    To make it easier you could allow for non compulsory voting and only a third of the “council of priests” need vote for the result to be binding on the whole community.

  • WG Grace

    Well, they have already decided on 51%. and Bishop Williamson has been expelled, so by the time a vote might come, those who might say “no” will aleady have left.

  • scary goat

     As I understand it, the current position is that the Vatican wants SSPX to accept the whole of VII and they are not budging on that.  Pope Benedict did mention that there was a problem with Nostra Aetate in that it ignored the negative side of other religions.  I was waiting for him to issue some clarification. There are also the new guidelines to help priests celebrate the NO properly as it was intended, which that same priest told me recently has already taken effect in some parishes.  I also understood Abp. Muller’s statement on seeing VII as rupture applied to everyone and the hermaneutic of continuity seems to say nothing has changed really. It seems to me that they are trying to get back on track without actually having to overturn anything.  And BXVI was dealing with some of those progressive nuns’ organisations too.  I just hope that the new Pope takes it further….makes VII acceptable to SSPX, prevents abuses of the NO, etc etc. We also need the disputed documents clarified for the understanding of the laity…so much confusion has been caused. Talking about continuity is all well and good for those who read and take things seriously and try to understand, but I really think it needs spelling out so that everybody knows where they stand. 

    We need to keep praying for a good Pope who will continue the reform of the reform.

  • Padova

    How can the names of the three cardinals be known, since the conclave ballots are secret, even to the extent of cardinal voters having to disguise their handwriting … ?

  • greenmoon

     Answer please, parasum

  • Benedict Carter

    Obviously one or more Cardinals broke the oath to keep Conclave matters secret.

  • Kevin

    These are very important points, but I believe it is still necessary to encourage O’Brien in his decision to withdraw completely from public life.

    Lord knows the enemies of the Church would love to offer him a golden pension and celebrity lifestyle if only he would bow down before them and spend the remainder of his life denouncing the “repressive regime” that “warped his personality” by “forcing him” to “deny the truth about himself”.

    There can be no doubt that the anti-Catholics in the establishment are more than capable of fulfilling their side of any such Faustian bargain. The temptation could be strong and it would be for the good of others if he resisted it.

  • $20596475

    Surely it would be good for every Catholic, but especially those considering the priesthood, to know and try to understand, some of the stresses, dilemmas, and temptations that might be faced by a priest. Only then can sensible decisions be made about whether the present structure is really fit for purpose in 2013. That 2013 enters the equation seems to be ignored by some, but it is important to realise that the effect of the way everything is now capable of being examined, and then swiftly disseminated, effects the Church every bit as much as any other organisation. Retiring gently into the background is never going to work in a situation when the spotlight is shining so brightly upon the RC church. It would add to the problems and not help them.    

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “His difficulties with celibacy are certainly not why I, too, am sorry
    for the cardinal, or why I find it unpleasant to have to rehearse once
    more why he should never have been given his red hat in the first place;
    it’s unpleasant because it is altogether too much like kicking a man
    when he is down. But it has to be done.”

    Priests, Super Priests and Religious who are sexual perverts are not taken to task by a low-lying, o, sorry they are,  poor LAY Catholic Christians, neither by way of Criticism, for the say to themselves, “after all they are human and weak like us”, nor by way of Prophecy, for they do not meditate on GOD’S WORD REGULARLY, so the ways of the world keep thriving and working havock from within the Church.

    Is it like the Priests and the People are seducing each other?

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

     “Why are these men deliberately sabotaging the Church and why has the
    Church covered for them for so many years?”

    Whom are you here projecting as the Church? What is the SOUNDNESS in your presumption?

    O it is organised Christianity and organised Christian Church! Well what can we expect better?

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

     “That’s when they should have intervened: not at the very last minute when it was bound to cause the maximum damage to the Church without doing any conceivable good”CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE from “simply good” Priests in the Church! or is it that they too are in the same boat but hidden and unexposed?OR may be that like people who are reduced  to LAY status, they too may be actually in “LAY status. HOW GOOD for all to escape responsibility!Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

     “We as a church neither deserve nor need the leadership we have at present.”

    Well, then demand that they be all APOSTLES starting from THE POPE and THE BISHOPS; do they not claim that they have inherited the offices of the APOSTLES?

    AND what about you and your own kind poor “LAY” people? In the Primitive Church every Christian was an APOSTLE. So the Church went on growing and growing under the SPIRIT OF JESUS.

    PRIESTS like in PAGANISM and NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS can perform only the “Rituals of the Dead”, for these cannot PROCLAIM God’s Word in the SPIRIT OF THE APOSTLES. This is WHY the Church in Europe is DEAD and elsewhere going down the same road.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • KevinBeach

    I think it will become more and more obvious in the next few years that the Church has for a long time been rendering unto Caesar some of the things that are God’s.

    His kingdom is not of this world. To mix the Church in with politics and other elements of secularism is to debase it. The profane is not a proper wrapping for the sacred.

  • Jonathan West

    It is a traumatic experience to be sexually abused as a child or a vulnerable adult. It can take time to gather the strength to come forward and name your abuser, particularly if he is in a position of power. Delays of 30 years are by no means unusual. I see no reason to think there was a conspiracy of silence, it is simply that it has taken until now for the circumstances to be such that people were able to come forward in the O’Brien case.

    It is no good talking about responsibility in this situation. Nobody has the responsibility to do something that is genuinely beyond their strength of body, mind or spirit.

  • Jonathan West

    Well, you can demand all you like, and if they say “we are doing all that” and carry on as before, what do you do next?

  • Benedict Carter

    This is the Traditionalists’ argument against the modern Church, and Vatican II specifically, in a nutshell. They have thrown out God and replaced Him with Man, just as the French Revolutionaries did.

  • Benedict Carter

    2013 has nothing to do with it. The year is not special, not different to other years, nor is human nature any different. The man should never have offered himself for ordination. 

  • GratefulCatholic

    Well said SG. I have been too chary to talk to a priest on these matters, being a newcomer and all, for eg. I nearly fainted when I first saw the photo of Pope John Paul kissing a koran – I still wonder if it’s genuine? 

  • $20596475

    This naive attitude has to change if the RC Church is to survive. Human nature may well not be any different, but the environment in which it exists is. Evolution demands that everything adapts to changes in the environment. Do so and they thrive. Fail and they become extinct. It applies to Churches just as much as to anything else. The RC Church is slow to adapt and argues from the past. Some past experience is relevant, but not all. We live in the fast moving, internet age. You might not like it, but you cannot change it. Adapt or die.  

  • scary goat

     I am a convert too, Grateful.  I am pretty sure that photo is genuine, as some of the people on here who have mentioned it are very knowledgeable people.  Take it easy and don’t let it trouble you too much….keep the faith and explore slowly.  Too much at once can be a bit shocking.  Just keep your eyes open, read, think.  If you want to talk to someone about these worries, do what I did, find a traditional mainstream priest.  Or keep following the threads on here.  There’s a good variety of opinion for you to consider. :-)

  • Lepanto

    Canon 351 § 1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law says:
    “The Roman Pontiff freely selects men to be promoted as cardinals, who have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate and are especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action; those who are not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration”.Did the Cardinal believe that he qualified? I think that many who knew nothing of this situation would have doubted it.

  • Benedict Carter

    Die? The Church? We have outlived nations and Empires – you think a few spotty militant atheists and the internet (!) are going to do what the Arians, Luther, even the demonic Revolutionaries of France couldn’t do? 

    We’ve even outlived appalling clergy from time to time. This is one of those times, not the first.  

    Christ is with His Church and always will be. You really, really should think about that. You have an immortal soul too. 

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    THE OFFICIAL CHURCH should make at least some scientific survey if not SPIRITUAL one in the the grass-root level of the people to find out about how many percentage among us are terribly harmful for the CAUSE OF CHRIST THE LORD  because of their scandalous life for too long and do something about it.


    THE BEST people to help the Pope in this matter is that category  of people who are despised as Charismatics but who in TRUTH are relatively APOSTOLIC in comparison with all others within the Church. Just Renewals alone will not work.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Perhaps he committed offenses against chastity, having taken a vow of chastity,repented and rebuilt his life in the context of contrition.
     His accusers now may not see things that way.He now clearly doesn’t.
    It is noteworthy that as far as I can tell, he broke no secular law.He is judged very harshly by the mores of the Catholic church, particularly by commentators that don’t agree with the mores of the Catholic Church.

  • onlooker

    I don’t think William Oddie is recommending a cover-up. On the contrary. I think he is sayng that there should have been openness 30 years ago, before Cardinal O’Brien was appointed bishop. Then the whole sorry mess could have been prevented.

  • $20596475

    You really are naive aren’t you. The changes we are seeing now are completely different to anything we have faced before, and they are moving so fast that even the fleet of foot find it difficult to adapt. Slow moving organisations like the Catholic Church are at a huge disadvantage. If you think that makes no difference then you are ignoring reality. I am not saying that Christianity will die, just that the RC version will, unless it finds a way to adapt. The reformation happened for a reason. Think about that and maybe you will start to find the answers.

  • Jonathan West

    I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on that point.

  • Benedict Carter

    The arrogance of Modern Man, who thinks he is something special!

    Sure, we’ve got iPODS and Galaxy III’s.

    Neither of them can remove Original Sin, nor cancel out the reality of Death, Judgement, Heaven and hell. 

  • Jonathan West

    So, you want those who agree most with you to sit in judgement on the rest.

  • Jon Brownridge

     Jonathan – You say, “The standard response to sexual scandals within the church has for a
    long time been to look after the welfare of the abusing priest at the
    expense of the abused victims. I see no reason to think that this case
    would have been handled any differently.”

    You make a very valid point. Who can disagree with it? But like so many others you do not tell the whole story. Like so many others you apply today’s standards, laws, and insights to yesterday’s sincere, though flawed, convictions.

    Psychiatry and psychology are disciplines that have made incredible strides over the past 60 years. It is only relatively recently that we understand the full, long-standing trauma that has afflicted many victims of child sexual abuse. Up until the mid-19th Century, 12-year-old girls were still being married off to older men in England – a kind of legal child sexual abuse. In the 1950s and 1960s and to some extent as recently as the 1980s, emphasis was placed on the abusers, not just by the Church, but in society at large – teachers, parents, youth leaders, etc. It was believed the children involved would “get over it” soon enough. The abusers were seen as mentally and emotionally sick, in need of treatment and counseling, and such help was given by the RC Church as it was by other institutions. When a qualified psychiatrist pronounced the abuser ‘cured’, that professional opinion was taken at face value and the abuser was put back in service. Now we know how wrong that was, but we didn’t know it then.

    I recently had breakfast with a retired, top-ranking official of Canada’s largest School Board. He told me that his job in the 1960s was to counsel and reassign teachers who had been charged with child abuse. That was considered the right thing to do. I myself remember being called to an emergency in-service in 1985. I was a Vice-Principal at the time and it was explained to us administrators that the law had changed. In future, we were required to report incidents of child abuse, physical or sexual, directly to the police. That was new. From then on we followed that new legal requirement exactly and so did the Church. It seems pointless to me, and totally unfair, to be constantly criticizing the Church for not reporting at a time when there was no legal requirement to do so, and the conventional wisdom of the time called for these matters to be dealt with internally. Yes, we all know now how mistaken we were. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

  • Anewbold

    Please spare a thought and a prayer for the victims.

  • Nick

    Oh dear oh dear – total blinkered delusionment.

  • Nick

    Far simpler just to disband the whole Catholic church and be rid of the fairy stories it promotes.

  • Nick

    “Too much at once can be a bit shocking.” – Well there’s enough about Christianity generally and the RCC in particular to be shocked about Scary – which bit were you thinking off? So much shocking stuff has happened in your church in the few short weeks since we last crossed swords. And what of O’Brien – railing against gay people in the most disgusting way and hey presto – he’s one himself!!

  • Benedict Carter

    Another mindless atheist-homo troll. 

  • Benedict Carter

    As are you. 

  • Jonathan West

    Canada is ahead of Britain in this respect. In Britain, there still is no legal obligation to report incidents of abuse to the authorities. A head teacher for instance can know that one of his pupils has been raped on school premises by a member of staff, and the head has no legal obligation to report anything to anybody.

    But do you really think that merely because it is legal not to report it that it is also right not to do so? I suggest that the church has no difficulty denouncing as sinful acts such as adultery, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, even though they are legal. But when the church hierarchy is caught out, suddenly the moral compass swings round 180 degrees and it is argued that it is OK to cover up child abuse because it isn’t in fact illegal to do so. The double-standard involved in blindingly obvious.

    There have been laws concerning the “age of consent” for a long time, and the age of consent in Britain was set to 16 in 1885. I don’t think it is all that unreasonable to apply a principle that has been established in law for 125 years to abuses that have occurred within that time, so the idea that nobody in the church realised it was wrong to cover up abuse really won’t wash.

    As for your position as Vice-Principal, I’m disappointed in you that it didn’t occur to you that reporting child abusers the the police was the right thing to do even before it was made a legal obligation. After all, others clearly thought it was the right thing to do even before it was made a legal obligation, otherwise they wouldn’t have passed a law about it. It seems that you have been excluding the children from your definition of the range of humanity which is deserving of protection. So has the church.

    As for whether the church in Canada has always followed the law since it was passed, you’re leaving something of a hostage to fortune there.

  • Jonathan West

     Is it noteworthy that those who have abortions have broken no secular law?

  • Jon Brownridge

     Just to clarify – before 1985 the Board Policy was that school administrators MUST report any incidents to the Board. The Board reserved the right to involve the police if it was deemed necessary and appropriate. It was as if we at the school level did nothing about it.

  • Jon Brownridge

     I meant it was NOT as if we at the school level did nothing about it.

  • Jonathan West

    In that case, if the Board was covering stuff up (as you imply) then they ought to have known better, even before 1985.

    But the situation here in Britain (except Northern Ireland) still is not at the stage that it seems Canada reached in 1985.