Responding to the previous day’s reports of accusations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ last Monday Cardinal O’Brien wrote: “Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended”.
Naturally enough, everyone interested in the issues awaited yesterday’s papers with great interest, not to say hope or trepidation; but in the event there was really nothing of any substance, which is not to say that pages were not filled; and yet by the end of the day the Cardinal had issued a further statement, this time admitting sexual misconduct. What is to be made of this?
Evidently the Cardinal himself has felt it necessary to acknowledge his wrongdoing, in part because of his guilt in the matter but also because of the burden that has fallen on others. Those close to him know of his kindliness, and of his care for men and women who have found themselves in trouble and facing disgrace. We generally do our best to pretend that all is well, but the truth is closer to Thoreau’s saying that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
Priests and doctors know this well because they are charged with the care of souls and of bodies, and whatever the details of the accusations, and whatever is betokened by his admission that “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal” very many can testify that O’Brien is a priest who cares for those in need.
Knowing the flawed nature of humanity and trying to deal with in others, it may take the shock of accusation fully to acknowledge the same flaws in oneself but that is what the Cardinal has done: accepting the ending of his role as Archbishop, withdrawing from the Papal conclave, admitting sexual misbehavior and removing himself from public life. It is hard to imagine that his accusers could have expected so total or so rapid a result and if there is any comfort for the Church it is the speed with which the matter has been addressed.
Scotland’s best-known priest has removed himself saying “to those I have offended, I apologise and ask forgiveness”. Rightly so for whatever the private wrongs there is the charge of public hypocrisy. It is possible consistently to encourage others not to do what one has done oneself,; but Cardinal O’Brien spoke forcefully on the issue of homosexuality while seeming to have an unresolved past of his own.
Scottish Catholics, like others, will have diverse views and interpretations of the facts and significance of the past week; but Catholics of all Christians long ago learned to distinguish the Church from its offices and its offices from its occupants. ‘Man sins and is shamed’ is hardly news in the world of faith, what is more important is the follow up ‘Man acknowledges sin and seeks forgiveness’.
• John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews and consultant to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.