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Cardinal's legacy transcends gay scandal

  • 12 March 2013

For 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