Cardinal's legacy transcends gay scandal


Cardinal Keith O'Brien from ScotlandFor Scottish Catholics, the recent revelations surrounding the resignation of Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien, Archbishop of Edinburgh, have caused a patriotic hurt far beyond the Church in this ancient nation, to my knowledge, the only non-state in the world to have its own Catholic bishops' conference.

When the English hierarchy had been restored in 1850 and, always up for a bit of imperialism, suggested the Scots be included, Rome refused to countenance the idea, and re-established the Scottish hierarchy in 1878.

The presence of Scottish priests in the Vatican reminded the Curia that Catholicism had been outlawed in Scotland 1560–1793, that 'heather priests' tended their flocks in secret and hid on our heather-clad mountains at night, and that the faith of St Andrew had clung on during all those dark centuries in the North-east and parts of the Highlands and Islands, earning the Scottish Church the title of 'Special Daughter of the Holy See'.

This is the second episcopal scandal to hit this 'special daughter' in less than two decades.

In 1996, Bishop Roddy Wright of the diocese of Argyll and the Isles ran off with a divorcée, leaving behind a son he had fathered by another woman. He ended up in New Zealand where he was reconciled to the Church by two priests from his diocese as he was dying from liver cancer at the age of 64 — forgiven by his successor, Bishop Ian Murray, and his flock, many of them, like him, Gaelic-speaking descendents of pre-Reformation Catholics.

In contrast to the reaction of Professor Tom Devine, a historian who described the O'Brien affair as 'possibly' one of the greatest crises to hit the Scottish Church since the Reformation, the late Cardinal Tom Winning of Glasgow, no shrinking violet when it came to orthodoxy, said of the Wright affair, 'Scandals are part and parcel of the Church's history and ... life. But if we don't set high standards we are not much of a Church.'

The Cardinal was hurt that Wright had lied to him when he brought up rumours of inappropriateness between the charming priest and women, but ultimately he put it in the context of the errant bishop's fallen humanity.

In O'Brien's case, the opprobrium visited on his head has been unrelenting, especially from the media, the Vatican and the rather supercilious English Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor.

That is not excusing what he did — abuse of power is always abhorrent — nor his hypocrisy about being gay, though it pales to insignificance compared to the hypocrisy within the curia on the same issue, as will be revealed once a new pope is installed. However, it is not in any way in the same category as child abuse by paedophile priests, nor will it damage a faith that rests on belief in a living God, not just a very human construct.

We have, and not just in Scotland, entered what Rahner termed 'a wintry season'.

Many of us Scottish Catholics who know the Cardinal well are concerned that his legacy will solely be one of drunken fumbles with adult men.

We need to remember the other Cardinal O'Brien: his passion for the poor, evidenced by his frequent visits to El Salvador and Mexico's Chiapas; his courage in having week-long workshops in Catholic schools in his Archdiocese on HIV/AIDS, and, at the final Mass, allowing pupils to question him rather than giving a homily; his support for married clergy, which he recently reiterated; his angry insistence to the former head of the IMF, then President of Germany, Horst Köhler, before the G8 Summit in 2007, that the promises of this rich nations' club to the poor should be implemented; and his deep empathy and solidarity with 'ordinary' parishioners, sisters and priests.

Had he been allowed to continue in the public life of the Church into his retirement, I think we would have seen more of this prophetic side emerge. That will now not happen.

But the lynching must stop, and compassion for both victim and victimised begin. We must all, as St Paul says, become a new creation, moving to that place where forgiveness and reconciliation bloom and hurt fades away.

Duncan MacLaren headshotDuncan MacLaren is former executive director of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund. He worked for the Scottish bishops as a representative of the Catholic Church on the ecumenical instruments which led to the ecumenical body, Action of the Churches Together in Scotland. He came to Australia after 12 years in the Vatican, eight of them as secretary general of Caritas Internationalis. 

Topic tags: Duncan MacLaren, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Scotland, St Andrew



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Existing comments

It would indeed be sad if Cardinal O'Brien is remembered only for his indiscretions (for want of a better word). Man is a complex creature and the Cardinal has shown himself to be a man of faith, albeit flawed, as we all are. Those who have suffered as a result of O'Brien's flaws may find some difficulty in placing unreserved trust in "that place where forgiveness and reconciliation bloom and hurt fades away". Those not directly affected may view the situation somewhat differently. But we have a loving and compassionate God who looks at the broken heart. And heals.
Pam | 08 March 2013

It was said, in earlier times, when the polite fiction existed that most unmarried Anglican clergy were celibate, that, if they removed gays in that Church's ministry, it would be devastated. There are, of course, Catholic clergy, I suspect at all levels, who are gay. Being gay, in itself, should be no bar. Putting one's gay sexuality into practice (as is one's heterosexuality amongst Latin Rite Catholic priests - unless they are married (mainly Anglican) clerical converts) is a definite no no. Keith O'Brien stepped down over unproven allegations. It is sad that his accusers did not go fully public. Perhaps neither he, nor the Vatican, wanted the matter to drag on, as it would, at this particular time.
Edward F | 09 March 2013

Pam, it is not Keith O'Brien's 'indiscretions' that are at the heart of this issue - it's his hypocrisy. Don't do as I do, do as I say. Also his willingness to refrain from questioning church teaching in exchange for appointment to a higher office. O'Brien did nor resign because of his indiscretions, but because he was found out. See Catherine Deveney in this article in Observer
Ginger Meggs | 11 March 2013

This article was going well till paragraph 7. After that it falls away into something that speaks of knowledge of just aid but not knowledge of the serious effect of the misuse of power.
Jennifer Herrick | 11 March 2013

Ginger Meggs, Perhaps O'Brien should have resigned because of his 'indiscretions" don't you think! Hypocrisy is an issue for everyone in the Church.
Pam | 11 March 2013

This and the other article today raise an important issue. It seems that society in general, not just the church, is obsessed by any form of sexual crime or indiscretion or anything in between. Millions of older people around the world have had their life savings ripped from them by fast-talking, well connected spivs; millions of children are exploited in workshops making products that are sold in the west; millions of non-Muslims are abused in a dozen countries where sharia law applies; millions are made by drug barons who corrupt our societies. In all cases, the number millions is appropriate. Yet, we seem to be helpless in these cases but fume and froth when any sexual element is present. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Frank | 12 March 2013

Thank you Duncan for speaking on behalf of this very humbled man. Your article is timely as we come to the 5th Sunday in Lent and watch Jesus relate so compassionately with the woman taken in adultery. It seems to me that you act from a "Jesus" place and invite us all to suspend judgement on a broken man.
Patty Andrew | 12 March 2013

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde??
john frawley | 12 March 2013

Thanks, Duncan, for another call to see the real moral centre in justice and solidarity with the poor rather than in issues of sexuality. Would that the conclave today would do something about that other moral imbalance in the Church, the preeminence of legalism and institutional control over a gospel-centred mission to liberate the spirit.
Joe Castley | 12 March 2013

Yes lynch mobs,trial by fury and media assassination make KKK look like children of Mary. The widely publicised media defamation of His Eminence Cardinal Pell is notable. Such becoming so out of control, that even SNAP has apologized abjectly for its 'dirty dozen' allusion! What next burning crosses on episcopal front lawns surrounded by men in white?
Father John George | 12 March 2013

What interests me about this case is not the circumstances but the timing. Why did this information all come to light just before he was off to Rome to (perhaps) influence the choice of the new Pope. It seems he was likely to be a force towards enlightenment in the Catholic Church rather than regression. His removal seems almost like a warning to others. Or am I just being overly suspicious?
Beth | 12 March 2013

Cardinal O'Brien did not use his prophecy to teach about the most obvious injustice - that of the homophobia of and in the Church. It is not just about 'indiscretions' - that is similar to the minimization of violence by calling it 'domestic'. Sadly he accepted a public teaching role, and then used it to help destroy people of his own sexual orientation by teaching that they were sinful.
Pauline | 12 March 2013

Words matter. The Cardinal is, or appears to be, homosexual. He acted out sexually, so he has conceded in his departing apology. He has not come out or identified as being gay, which, broading speaking, denotes a male's acceptance of his primary sexual attraction to men. Prior to the reports by a number of priests and one former priest about his unsought and unwanted sexual approaches, he publicly attacked what was portrayed as the gay agenda, including smae-sex marriage. To call his sexual approaches (formally indecent assault or sexual assault in the criminal law) a "gay scandal" is simply incorrect. Was Bishop Wright's decades-long sexual misconduct with a woman, which was alluded to in this article, ever called a "sraight or heterosexual scandal"? No, of course, it wasn't. The article also refers to "accusations" as if they were in some way malicious. They first surfaced, I seem to recall, after the Cardinal in question called publicly for re-consideration by the Latin Chruch of mandatory celibacy. The intended view among readers/listeners presumably being to see the Carindal as one who missed having a wife and family. This double hypocrisy could well have been the proximate spur to the public revelations about the Cardinal's sexual misconduct while in aposition of authority and trust over the males he mishandled.
Rodney Stinson | 12 March 2013

Thank you, Duncan. Perhaps we need to learn from the witnesses closest to the person and the scene. The men who accused O''Brien have seen one aspect of him. You've brought us the view of the many Catholics who reason to admire and respect him. I'm not sure where Catherine Deveney fits in here, Ginger Meggs. She's hardly an objective witness to anything or person in the Church. Whatever the truth of her opinions, the fact remains that Cardinal O''Brien is a human being with his own set of strengths and weaknesses. None of us is in a position to make a final judgement on him.
Joan Seymour | 12 March 2013

Since the Vatican is dishonest about the behaviour of humans, it is really their own fault for setting themselves up to fail once the faithful notice and speak up about the lack of clothing. Better to acknowledge gay men and women in the service of the numerous gods humans like to pretend about, than to pretend these humans do not exist and that the gods do. That is really being hypocritical. Now, what's this all about? "his passion for the poor, evidenced by his frequent visits to El Salvador and Mexico's Chiapas". With so many poor people in the UK and Northern Ireland to be assisting, how come he has to junket his way across the world like this? Was he 'helping the poor', or himself, and if himself, what was he helping himself to? It's a long way from these parts to his Scottish home, and 'poor folk' tend not to speak about what they do to get help, when they are really frantic for it.
Janice Wallace | 12 March 2013

So EDWARD, are you saying being celibate means being "asexual"? Thought priest were required to have balls as well.
AURELIUS | 12 March 2013

To my mind the only scandal associated with being gay, per se, is the Church's response to it. Without this there would be no hypocrisy.
Paul McConaghy | 12 March 2013

Thank you for your thoughtful observations. The writer is right to distinguish this affair from child sexual abuse and yet it seems in public comment to be placed in the same category. Bishop O'Brien did transgress and showed he was confused about his own role but it is something the Church could have better managed if it had taken on a thoughtful approach. Instead the Church leaders seem to have rushed to appease the very secular world it seems in other ways set against. It sounded more like a damage management response. The church could have given a response that gave witness to its own values of being able to discriminate and understand humanity. The writer has set out the lines on which this could have gone.
Eric Snowball | 12 March 2013

Only yesterday a member of the B'hai faith asked me: "You must be very disappointed with the Scottish Cardinal not being able to go to the Conclave. He'd have put those Italian Red Hats in their place." With absolutely no inside knowledge I replied: "I bet you the poor fellow had a drinking problem and things got out of hand when he'd had a few too many wiskies with some of his clerical mates." Now I read Duncan MacLaren's reference to "drunken fumbles with adult men". I have seen clerics (not just catholic) at all levels under the influence of alcohol. In mixed company some of them became embarrassingly familiar with some of the women present. In all male company there was the occasional exaggerated camaraderie one witnesses in the sheds after a rugby match. Excuses were made for "Father". Remarks like. "What he needs is the love of a good woman". Was a particular priest I'm thinking of gay? Bi-sexual? In a black out? I'll never know. He went back to Ireland. Thank you, Duncan, for presenting the story of Cardinal O'Brien in a balanced way. Thank you, Eureka Street, for printing it.
Uncle Pat | 12 March 2013

With some obvious exceptions it appears that most of those offering comments would at another time and place, been ready to "throw the first stone" and have not recently taken to an understanding of 1 Corinthians 4-13
Tony Knight | 12 March 2013

Thank you for sparing a thought for the victims.
Alan | 12 March 2013

Priestly celibacy, as I understand it, Aurelius, requires the person to be "a eunuch for Christ's sake" albeit metaphorically. The Anglican clergy I mentioned were not, unlike their Roman counterparts, under mandatory vows of celibacy.
Edward F | 13 March 2013

Joan, I'm prepared to acknowledge the good that Keith O'Brien has done, and to admire his courage in speaking-out when speaking-out was not a career-enhancing thing to do. I'm also prepared to see his eventual 'fall from grace' (if that's not too ironic an expression) as a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. But as Catherine Deveney pointed out, the whole process of appointment of clergy, and especially that of bishops and cardinals, and the hubris that is inevitably encouraged by gold mitres and the like, was just as much to blame for his fall as his own human weaknesses. Perhaps cardinals and bishops, like Roman generals, need a non-entity to walk beside them continuously whispering 'memento mori'.
Ginger Meggs | 13 March 2013

It appears that a civil case is pending against Keith O'Brien.
Edward F | 16 March 2013

Thank you, Ginger Meggs. I should have read Catherine Deveny's article before launching forth. I certainly agree that the hubris which both engenders and prolongs present ecclesiastical structures is greatly to blame for Cardinal O'Brien's downfall.
Joan Seymour | 17 March 2013


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