THE credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been damaged by the sexual misconduct revelations surrounding Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the man who has replaced him admitted last night.
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia told worshippers in a sermon in Glasgow that “it will take time, perhaps a long time, to recover these intangible but important realities”.
The Church, he said, had been accused of hypocrisy over the scandal, which saw Britain’s most senior Catholic resign from his post.
“Many reproaches have been aimed at the Church and at individuals over this matter,” he told the congregation at St Andrew’s Cathedral.
“The most stinging charge which has been levelled against us in this matter is hypocrisy, and for obvious reasons. I think there is little doubt that the credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been dealt a serious blow, and we will need to come to terms with that.”
On Sunday night, Cardinal O’Brien admitted there had been times his “sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”.
It came a week to the day after he stepped down as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, following allegations from three serving priests and one ex-priest that he had behaved “inappropriately” towards them.
There were later allegations that sexual misconduct came after “excessive drinking”, while the four priests alleged he had attempted to touch, kiss or have sex with people in his care.
The cardinal originally denied the allegations but on Sunday he shocked the Roman Catholic community when he indicated he would not contest the claims against him and said he intended to retire permanently from the public life of the Church.
“This is a sad moment for the Church in our country,” Archbishop Tartaglia told the congregation last night.
“The events around Cardinal O’Brien, his resignation, his statement of yesterday, have left us all very sad for everyone involved, and for the Church.
“I have been asked to administer the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh until a new archbishop is appointed, and I will do my very best to help in this difficult time.”
Archbishop Tartaglia said the election of the new pope would bolster the faith of those who had been saddened by the recent scandal. He insisted that, while many would “not forget for a long time”, the Church would get over the episode.
“So what can I say to offer us hope?” he said. “Well, in the first place, a new pope will be elected in the coming weeks, and that will certainly be a wonderful moment of hope and joy for the Church throughout the world, for since Pope Benedict announced his resignation and since he stepped down, we sensed the absence of Peter among us. But the Lord will again give us Peter, the rock, who will confirm his brothers and sisters in their faith in Jesus Christ… And this sad time for the Catholic Church in Scotland will also pass. We will endure it with prayer and patience and hope. We will not forget for a long time, but we will heal and we will carry on.
“We will draw what conclusions and lessons we can from it and, if anything, we will learn to trust even more fully in Jesus Christ, who is alone the Lord of the Church.”
The archbishop went on: “As for the Church’s mission in our country, yes, our credibility and moral authority have been undermined. It will take time, perhaps a long time to recover these intangible but important realities. But we cannot be defeatist.
“The answer to this sad episode is not to throw in the towel. We need, rather, to renew our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to go about our business humbly. Remember that we are not alone as a Church. We are in communion with the See of Peter and with the whole Catholic Church. We are in communion with the Church throughout history. We are in communion with the saints in heaven. Through that communion, we will draw strength from Jesus Christ in whom we trust.”
Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation was accepted by the pope on 18 February. He had been due to retire later this month when he reached 75.
In fresh claims published on Sunday, a former priest who reported Cardinal O’Brien over the allegations attacked the Church’s response to the complaints.
The man, who remains anonymous, said he had faced the “cold disapproval of the Church hierarchy for daring to break ranks” by reporting the abuse.
“I feel like if they could crush me, they would,” he said. “The vacuum the Church has created has allowed whimsy and speculation to distort the truth, and the only support I have been offered is a cursory e-mail with a couple of telephone numbers of counsellors hundreds of miles away from me.”
The cardinal, who was born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, had been the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since 1985.
Ordained as a priest in 1965, he was proclaimed a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in October 2003, making him Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric.
He will now face a Vatican inquiry after his admissions about his sexual conduct.
The complaints have been reported to the Vatican, and a Scottish Catholic media office spokesman said: “We expect that they will be investigated and a conclusion drawn.”
The ultimate fate of Cardinal O’Brien rests with whoever is elected the new pope in the forthcoming conclave.
Under Canon Law, the rules that govern the Catholic Church, a cardinal can be disciplined only by the pope himself, unlike bishops and archbishops, who can be disciplined by the Congregation of Bishops.
A source close to the Catholic Church said Cardinal O’Brien could be stripped of his red beretta, and so would no longer be a cardinal.
“The options are limited, as he has already been forced to give up his archbishopric, but he could be forced to give up his role as cardinal, or even be laicised, which would mean he would no longer be a priest, but I think that is highly unlikely.
“It is possible, however, that the new pope might make an example of him.”
According to Church sources, other options could involve being ordered into a private life of repentance and contemplation, with orders not to say Mass in public again.