There is a touching scene at the start of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s newly published memoir, An English Spring. It’s June 1999, 12 days before the much-loved Cardinal Basil Hume dies, and the then Bishop Murphy-O’Connor of Arundel and Brighton is ushered into his hospital room to say a final goodbye. The dying monk looks up and says: “Cormac, you will have to take over this job.”
It sounds for all the world as if Hume was anointing the bishop as his successor as Archbishop of Westminster and de facto leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
“I was very surprised when he said it,” recalls 82-year-old Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, as we settle into side-by-side leather armchairs in the west London house he moved to upon his retirement in 2009. “I think he had probably seen the nuncio in the same hospital room a few days before, so the process of consultation had already begun.
“But what I remember thinking was, ‘Don’t take too much notice because his mind could be wandering,’ which it was at that stage. And anyway, I was ready to retire. I was 67 and had decided that I would stay on for another three years for a diocesan synod, and then say to the Pope that I had done 25 years as a bishop and was ready to stop.”
John Paul II, however, had other plans and, though it would take many months, the Vatican finally decided to go along with Cardinal Hume’s dying wish and appoint Bishop Murphy-O’Connor as Archbishop of Westminster. It came as a shock to many who had written him off as, variously, too old, too liberal (he was in favour of married priests and championed ecumenism, up to and including recognition of Anglican orders), and generally just too nice.
But suddenly he was handed the biggest leadership challenge of all in terms of the English and Welsh Church. How surprised was he? He pauses to think for a moment. For all his affability and good humour, he learnt over his nine years in the top job to choose his words with caution. “Would I say I was fearful when I heard I had been appointed?” It is a rhetorical question. “No, I wouldn’t, but Basil was certainly a very hard act to follow.”
There were, he is anxious to point out, differences between the two of them. “He was monastic right the way through, and sort of French-Scottish, that sort of ‘Amples’ [evidently what old boys call Ampleforth, where Hume had been abbot] and all that. And I was what I was – parents Irish, very secular, been through the mill of parish work, and I’d been a bishop a long time.”
Now that he has finally been allowed to retire, it seems to be suiting Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor very well. He is in good form, full of funny stories – most of them to be found in the book – and boyish smiles as his 6ft 6in frame settles back into his chair.
He is, he points out, the first Archbishop of Westminster since the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850 to retire rather than die in office.
There were, he freely admits, testing times for him at Westminster, not least when, just six months into the job, a row broke out over his handling in the 1980s of the case of a paedophile priest in his old diocese. There were even calls for his resignation. “It dominated my first two or three years [at Westminster],” he says, “but I had to bear the shame, for me and for the Church, and try to do something about it.”
He had first received a complaint about Fr Michael Hill in the early 1980s, and sent him for counselling and then to a therapeutic centre run by a religious order. The expert advice he received on redeploying Hill was “inconsistent”, he writes in the memoir, and so when the priest came to see him – “crying with remorse and begging on his knees to be given some work” – he agreed, sending him as chaplain to Gatwick Airport. It was a terrible mistake. There Hill offended again, and was convicted in 1997.
“I wasn’t sure whether to write the book at all,” he says, “but clearly if I was to going to, I knew I’d have to mention the scandal, its effect on me, its effect on the Church and, most of all, its effect on victims. I felt I had to have a chapter on it. It was very difficult to write.”
He talks – and writes – with passion about the lifelong impact of abuse on victims, and confesses that both he, and the Church in general, were slow to recognise this. “Going back 20 to 30 years, we didn’t think about victims. We didn’t listen to them, but that’s not true any more.”
Did he speak to Hill’s victims, either at the time he decided to re-employ him, or later, when the extent of the priest’s crimes became plain? “No, I didn’t. I’ve never met any of his victims. Of course, I should have. I’ve met quite a number of victims since, particularly in recent years, both in England and Ireland.”
He knows the reply is inadequate, so adds: “Sometimes the last person a victim wants to meet is the bishop, but if we’d had bishops able and willing to listen to victims, it would have been different.”
In refusing to resign at the time, he argued that there was work to be done in reforming safeguarding in the Church, and that he was best placed to undertake it. He appointed Lord Nolan, a senior Law Lord, to produce a report. The cardinal is pleased that its recommendations were accepted and have now been implemented. He believes that the good practice in England and Wales is now being replicated by Catholic leaders around the globe.
But it is not, he stresses, a case of problem solved. “We have to create a culture of safeguarding regarding this terrible thing and that takes a long time – both in the Church and in society. For priests, however few, to molest children is a terrible thing, and it is not something we can just brush off in a few years. It will only go away when a safeguarding culture is there.”
Though the issue dominated his early years in Westminster, there were plenty of other challenges he had to handle, not least the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, telling him he wanted to become a Catholic. “I liked Tony,” he recalls. “He is getting a bit of a bad time now and I feel sorry for him. He made mistakes – over Iraq – but he doesn’t deserve the kind of treatment he is getting.”
For the full version of this interview, including the cardinal discussing his role in the election of Pope Francis, buy this week’s Catholic Herald magazine, out on Friday.
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