THE new Archbishop of Glasgow has appeared to link the premature death of an MP to the politician’s homosexuality, prompting a furious row.
Philip Tartaglia’s suggestion prompted criticism from friends and the partner of the late David Cairns, a former priest, who claimed the Catholic leader had suggested the politician’s death at the age of 44 was somehow connected to his sexual orientation.
The row came on the day that Pope Benedict XVI appointed the cleric, who has been Bishop of Paisley since 2005, as Archbishop-elect of Glasgow.
In remarks made when he spoke on religious freedom and equality at a conference at Oxford University in April, but which have only just come to light, the then Bishop of Paisley referred to Mr Cairns in response to a member of the audience who spoke about a gay author in the United States, who had committed suicide.
“If what I have heard is true about the relationship between the physical and mental health of gay men, if it is true, then society is being very quiet about it,” the archbishop-elect, 61, said.
“Recently in Scotland there was a gay Catholic MP who died at the age of 44 or so, and nobody said anything, and why his body should just shut down at that age? Obviously he could have had a disease that would have killed anybody. But you seem to hear so many stories about this kind of thing, but society won’t address it.”
His comments were made at Magdalene College, Oxford, at an event held in conjunction with Georgetown University’s Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
His address was videoed and put on the internet, but it was not until yesterday that Mr Cairns’s friends and family became aware of its contents.
Although the archbishop-elect did not mention Mr Cairns by name, there was no doubt among his friends and colleagues that Bishop Tartaglia was referring to the late Labour politician. Mr Cairns was a highly respected MP, a government minister and a devout Catholic. He had the distinction of being the first former Catholic priest to sit in parliament.
The Inverclyde MP died in May last year, reportedly of acute pancreatitis.
Last night Mr Cairns’s partner, Dermot Kehoe, who was in a relationship with the late MP for almost 15 years, said: “This is genuinely very upsetting and painful for David’s family and friends. I can’t believe that someone who claims to be a man of God and is seeking to give moral leadership should speak from such a position of ignorance.
“I don’t care what his views on gay marriage are, but to bring in my dead partner to justify those views is wrong.”
Mr Cairns’s good friend Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South, said: “I will certainly be writing to the bishop today. Clearly, the bishop is entirely ignorant of David’s life and death.
“It is a great pity that someone in such authority is coming out with such ill-informed tripe. David’s friends and family have been through an awful lot in the last year and it is great pity that the bishop adds to their distress, for no other reason than his own ignorance.”
In his letter, Mr Harris told the archbishop-elect his comments were “hurtful and ill-informed”.
The Glasgow South MP’s letter continued: “I was privileged to be one of David’s closest friends. His friends and family have spent the last year trying to come to terms with his tragic loss from complications arising from acute pancreatitis. Your public assertion that David’s
illness might in some way be connected to his sexuality and lifestyle was not only unsupported by any evidence, but was, I fear, unworthy of your position as a leader in the Church.”
Mr Harris added: “I hope you will revisit your words and honestly reappraise them in the light of the unjustified distress they will have caused.”
A spokesman for Bishop Tartaglia said: “Responding to a question from an audience member, Bishop Tartaglia agreed that the health risks of same sex behaviour were largely unreported. “He mentioned the premature death of a young high-profile gay MP in this context. There was no intention to cause offence and he regrets that anyone may have been upset.
“In the case of the MP concerned, his funeral was conducted in the Catholic Church and pastoral support offered to his family and friends.”
Bishop Tartaglia has been an outspoken critic of the Scottish Government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage. On his appointment yesterday he expressed fears that he and other priests could face prosecution if such legislation goes ahead.
The archbishop-elect, who takes over from Archbishop Mario Conti in September, said: “If you defend the traditional marriage, that’s almost considered homophobic hate-speak.
“I could see myself going to jail, if, at some point in the next 15 years, I speak out.”