Priests urged to renew pledge to stay celibate

Professor John Haldane. Picture: Neil Hanna
Professor John Haldane. Picture: Neil Hanna
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CATHOLIC priests in Scotland should be told either to sign a renewed pledge to remain celibate or asked to leave their posts, according to an adviser to the Vatican.

Professor John Haldane, a Roman Catholic academic based at St Andrews University, is proposing the radical step following Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation last week amid claims that he had engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” with four priests and one former cleric.

The cardinal’s case is being dealt with by the Vatican but, with a stunned Church hierachy in Scotland seeking to pick up the pieces after the revelations, Haldane – one of the most respected figures in the church – warns that fresh steps are required to prove that priests across the country are abiding by their original vows so such “scandals” can be avoided.

In an article in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, Haldane asks how “in scandal-scarred Scotland” should the Church renew its vocation. It should include, he says, a call to “engage directly with the clergy, proposing a clear option: remain in holy orders subject to signing a private but strict renewed solemn vow of celibacy; or failing willingness to do that, be restored to the lay state.”

One of the allegations against the cardinal involved an incident at a Catholic seminary (training college) in 1980. Haldane said seminaries for Scottish priests have in the past, “provided cover for those who were uncertain – or pretty sure – about their sexuality and would otherwise face questions about girlfriends, prospective fiancées and married life”.

“Homosexuality per se is not the problem,” he adds, “it is the existence of large numbers of gays in an institution that regards this condition as intrinsically disordered and pretends that its priesthood is not subject to that very condition.”

Haldane also argues that the Catholic Church in Scotland should settle for “at most” four dioceses, half the number as at present, because of a continuing shortage of priests. It should also appoint more lay members to help guide the Church through the current crisis.

Haldane’s call for a renewed vow of celibacy from serving priests emerged with O’Brien still “contesting” the claims made by a group of anonymous priests last week. All the allegations are “non-specific”, a Catholic Church spokesman said yesterday.

The allegations have foc­ussed fresh attention on how the Church is dealing with sexuality and the care of priests. One gay Scottish priest, speaking under the condition of anonymity, reveals today in Scotland on Sunday how he and others in the priesthood had to form a “secret club” to support one another.

The priest said that he, like other gay Catholic men, had in part been attracted to the priesthood because of his sexuality, only then to struggle with celibacy and the need to maintain a public silence.

Among the allegations facing O’Brien, a former priest claimed he made an inappropriate approach to him in 1980 after night prayers when he was a seminarian at St And­rew’s College, Drygrange. A second statement from another complainant said he was living in a parish when he was visited by O’Brien and inappropriate contact took place between them.

A third complainant alleged dealing with what he described as “unwanted behaviour” by the cardinal in the 1980s after some late-night drinking.

The fourth complainant claimed the cardinal used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact.

Reports later last week suggested that a fifth priest had approached the Vatican with a complaint about O’Brien from as recently as 2001. It is claimed that it was this approach which prompted his decision to announce his retirement as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh late last year. The Vatican accepted his resignation on Monday after the allegations were published.

All the allegations have been put either to the Vatican or the office of the Papal Nuncio in London.

The cardinal, who had been the leading critic of Scottish government plans to legalise gay marriage, issued a statement last week in which he apologised “to all whom I have offended”.

He is said to be deeply “upset” by the allegations and is taking legal advice. Many Catholics have also voiced their anger that his reputation has been “ruined” by a group of anonymous priests, with no specific details having yet emerged.

Church figures said yesterday that they did not expect the issue to become a criminal or a civil matter. Instead, it is understood that the complaints will be handled as a church matter, with four of the five complainants understood to be current serving priests.