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

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.