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What is the Church doing about Cardinal O’Brien?

This is not the time for Catholics to circle the wagon

By on Monday, 20 May 2013

Cardinal Keith O'Brien – how is the Church dealing with complaints? AP Photo

Cardinal Keith O'Brien – how is the Church dealing with complaints? AP Photo

This is the sort of headline that no Catholic can want to read: “Three months on, a cardinal is banished but his church is still in denial.” The subtitle goes on: “Cardinal Keith O’Brien has been told to leave Scotland for ‘prayer and penance’, after resigning over charges of sexual misconduct. But his accusers still wait for a proper inquiry.” You can read the whole article, by Catherine Deveney, who first broke the story, here and a further article here.

What is depressing about the article in contained in the words “three months”. It is three months since the Cardinal O’Brien story broke, and still it rumbles on. In other words, three months have passed, and still the Church has not formulated an adequate response to the crisis occasioned by the cardinal’s fall. The Church needs to take control of this story and assure the faithful that the matter is being dealt with firmly and with reasonable speed. We also need the assurance that adherence to the truth is paramount.

Instead, reading what Ms Deveney has to say, we get the impression that headless chickens are still ruling the roost, partly as a result of the way power is devolved in the Catholic Church. Who deals with this? Is it the Scottish bishops? Is it their media office? Is it the Nuncio in Wimbledon? Is it Cardinal Ouellet in Rome? Is it the Pope himself? This sorry state of affairs is compounded by the fact that three of the complainants are serving priests. If priests can’t get a hearing, who can?

It is, it seems to me, a disastrous mistake to assume that Ms Deveney and the complainants are somehow “the enemy”: to circle the wagons at this point in the hope that this terrible mess will simply go away is not an acceptable solution. It has to be faced honestly.

There are questions to be asked, but they have to be the right questions. We do not need to know what it was the cardinal has done, for he himself has told us enough on that score. But there are some things that we do need to know.

Here’s a list:

• What is the Church planning to do for the complainants, three of whom are serving priests, so that they receive justice?

• What is the Church planning to do to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again?

• Given that Cardinal O’Brien was made a bishop and later a cardinal after (we assume) extensive consultation among the people of God, despite the fact that his lifestyle must have been well known, what is the Church going to do to ensure that such tainted appointments do not happen again?

As with other cases, as I have said before, the past cannot be undone, and scandals there will, sadly, always be in the Church, human nature being what it is. But we can do something about the present. We can make some form of amends to those who have been scandalised, and we can face up to the past and try our best to learn from our mistakes.

Ms Deveney’s article ends with the prophecy that there is more to come. The Church needs to act, not in self-defence, but in defence of the truth.