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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.

  • celia

    Whatever the Vatican is doing will, as we should know by now, take years. After all the 2 disgraced cardinals who insisted on attending and voting at the recent conclave still haven’t lost their cardinal’s hats, because the due process (which they are of course entitled to) takes so long.

    What a pity that the men O’Brien apparently molested didn’t find the courage to report him over the next 30-odd years. Granted they may not have felt it possible to do so with any effect in the 1980s, but surely by 2003 they could have done something which would at least have prevented him becoming a cardinal. They were not children, nor ‘vulnerable’ at the time nor 20 years later. Didn’t they have a duty as priests to report sexual abuse by another priest?

  • scary goat

    As priests they are the responsibility of the Church and within itself the Church does have authority over its priests. Is it better to just chuck them out onto the public with no restraints? Of course no-one can prevent them from running away….but that’s another question. If they are priests with a “weakness” they should submit to being confined to a monastery in prayer and penance.

  • scary goat

    Agree generally, but who should give them support? That’s not as easy as it might sound. Counseling? Where? Who? Although “abuse” in general is understood by appropriate counselors, there is a dimension to clerical abuse that may not be understood outside Church circles. Inside Church circles? Nobody knows who to trust on these issues any more. Not saying they shouldn’t be given support, or it should be delayed….just simply that it’s not as easy at it sounds.

  • Benedict Carter

    Are you a Catholic priest? Really? Are you sure?

    You don’t seem to be aware of sin.


  • Jonathan West

    I have spoken to a number of victims of sex abuse. It affects people for
    years afterwards in a way that those who have not suffered it can find
    almost impossible to comprehend. It can take years or decades to summon
    the courage come forward and report it.

  • Jonathan West

    In an organisation supposed to be largely dedicated to providing people with pastoral support, are you suggesting that these four with great pastoral needs are going to have to be left on their own?

  • Arden Forester

    Something has just come to mind after reading this. I remember a TV programme where a stunt was done where a bank ATM cash machine was rigged to spew out extra cash. Many took the cash and ran off. But one man did not and tried to hand it back. When asked why he replied “As I am a Christian I didn’t think Jesus would like it”. The TV interviewer was taken aback.

    In all such cases, like that of Cardinal O’Brien, I can understand a transitory fall from grace but a perpetual fall is something else. Did O’Brien ever ask himself whether Jesus would like it? We should be above cover-ups, intrigue and defiance. Unspotted from the world we must be.

  • scary goat

    Obviously that’s not what should happen….but I’m afraid it’s likely to be the reality of the situation.

  • Jonathan West

    Even when there is an investigation announced, you can’t assume anything will come of it. Have you heard anything at all of the outcome of the Apostolic Visitation to Ealing Abbey? No, I haven’t either, and I was the person who contacted the Nuncio to ask for it (something that Archbishop Vincent Nichols, whose diocese includes Ealing, couldn’t bestir himself to do).

  • Jonathan West

    Well, all the more shame on the church then.

  • scary goat

    I’m not sure. In a way you have a point. I am not interested in protecting the abuser, I am interested in preventing them from doing more harm. What is the best way to do that? And then there is the question of what is a “crime” and what isn’t. Something like molesting seminarians, unless force is used, can easily be passed off as consensual. As such it’s not a crime in civil law, and the definition of “vulnerable” is too narrow. This IS a crime in Church law. The problem is Church law is not being implemented. I really don’t know what the answer is.

  • scary goat

    Indeed. :-(

  • Jonathan West

    Molesting seminarians can be a crime even if force is not used. It is called sexual assault and is a crime under Section 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The relevant clause defining the crime is here

    The Act replaces earlier legislation on the subject where essentially the same crime existed but it used to be called “indecent assault”.

    The key issue is whether consent is freely given and whether the person alleged to have committed the assault would reasonably believe that consent has been given.

    In a case where you have a person in a position of authority over another, it would be quite hard to argue against a claim that consent wasn’t freely given and that the victim didn’t dare oppose the assault. The defence could of course be made and ultimately it would be for a jury’s judgement to decide.

    This situation applies to any teacher-pupil relationship, even where the pupil is over 18, as we have seen with recent events concerning Chetham’s School and the Royal Northern College of Music.

    The best way to prevent abusers from doing more harm is first of all to remove them from any situation where they are in any kind of position of authority over children (or over people in general, for that matter). By virtue of the authority traditionally bestowed on the clergy, this means that even a priest who is on restricted ministry can still call himself “Father” and people will treat him as a safe person to be around. So even if denied active ministry, a priest still has that authority. It must be removed.

    After that, the matter must be left to police, social services (and if he has been convicted of a crime) the probation service. They are by no means perfect, people do re-offend, but at least they will ensure that the person doesn’t get into a position of trust within an organisation again, and so the likely number of victims is vastly reduced. Each incident of abuse that can be prevented is a person probably saved from a lifetime of mental health problems.

    The church is not competent to handle abusers, for two reasons. The first is that the church does not have an adequate number of suitably trained people, simply because its primary purpose is something else entirely. The second is that the church has its own reputation to uphold, and the short-term protection of the church’s reputation can lead people into highly misguided decisions to cover up abuse.

    This is what has got the church into its present mess, and if the church is ever to escape from it, then there has to be a definitive decision not to carry on with the old ways.