Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s legacy destroyed

THE zenith of the ecclesiastical career of Keith O’Brien took place amid the sunshine of St Peter’s Square when, in the autumn of 2003, he was presented with the red beretta of a cardinal, so coloured to reflect his new vow to shed his blood for the good of the Catholic Church.

In a public display which other cardinals were said to have considered unbecoming he brandished a saltire with the enthusiasm of a football fan at Hampden to the delight of photographers whose pictures ran on the front page of newspapers around the world.

In the nadir of the ecclesiastical career of Keith O’Brien he returns once again to the front pages, not as a vision of joyous Catholic scotia, but of an old man crushed by cardinal sins.

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How can Catholics come to terms with the janus faced leader of the Catholic Church: the cardinal who described gay marriage as a “grotesque subversion” in the knowledge that his own sexual conduct had “fallen below the standards” expected of a priest.

It is clear that the sexual feelings that all priests who have taken a vow of celibacy must keep under control appear to have broken through. There were allegations yesterday that sexual misconduct came after “excessive drinking”, while the four priests alleged O’Brien had attempted to touch, kiss or have sex with people in his care.

The cardinal’s public confession last night means that his career must now be viewed through a glass darkly, for there was evidence that his judgement and behaviour was not always sound. Then again, clearly neither was that of the Vatican and Pope John Paul II who appointed him.

For when it was announced, back in October, 2003 that he had been named as only the third cardinal in Scotland since the Reformation, Mario Conti, then Archbishop of Glasgow was privately devastated that his “safe pair of hands” had been bypassed in favour of a man who could be exceedingly incautious with his tongue. (Only two years previously O’Brien had found himself in hot water for described a senior Italian cardinal to the press as a “wee fat guy”.)

Within 24 hours of the news of his appointment, O’Brien said at an impromptu press conference at St Mary’s Cathedral that female priests, married clergy and contraception should now all be up for discussion. The papal nuncio in London was immediately instructed by furious Vatican officials to insist that O’Brien make a public statement of his fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

O’Brien did so quietly at a morning mass the following day, but the experience frightened him and may explain why he abandoned his previous liberal views in favour of attracting headlines such as comparing abortion to “two Dunblane massacres a day” or describing a new bill on human embryos as “Frankenstein” experiments and a “monstrous” attack on human rights. Or perhaps, as other believe, he simply saw this as his role as the successor to the pugilistic Cardinal Thomas Winning.

One of the most controversial decisions O’Brien made as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh was in 1990 when he paid £42,000 in compensation to Michael X who as a young seminarian at Blairs junior seminary was repeatedly sexually abused by two priests, Fr Desmond Lynagh and Fr Frank Kennedy between 1973 and 1975.

At the time O’Brien refused to remove Lynagh from the priesthood and instead sent him for a course of treatment at the Gracewell Clinic in Birmingham, run by a counsellor who specialised in the treatment of sex offenders. Upon his return Lynagh was given an administrative job within the archdiocese and asked to sign a document declaring he would never work with children again. When Michael X finally reported his abuse to the police in 1996 Lynagh was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Fr Kennedy had already died.

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Did O’Brien’s knowledge of his own actions, which it must be made clear did not involve anyone under the age of consent, make him more understanding to a priest whose actions were criminal? We do not know.

Alternatively, his actions were repeated by many archbishops and bishops who sought to shuttle abusive priests across the country to avoid embarrassing the Church.

Yesterday, it was reported that one of the allegations against O’Brien was that he made sexual advances on a young seminarian while acting as his spiritual director. One of those who complained of his behaviour also said: “He started fondling my body, kissing me and telling me how special I was to him and how much he loved me.”

“Lenny”, a former priest said: “I’d never wanted to ‘out’ Keith just for being gay. But this was confirming that his behaviour towards me was part of his modus operandi. He has hurt others, probably worse, than he affected me.”

The knowledge of his own private transgressions may also have made him more sympathetic towards Roddy Wright, the errant Bishop of Argyll and the Isles whom O’Brien met at the home of Thomas Winning when both tried to persuade him to stay with the Church. Instead he left to join his lover Kathleen MacPhee who waited outside in the car.

The vast majority of Catholics will have known Cardinal O’Brien for his wise-cracks, his jokes and smiles and the effort he made at putting people at their ease. Others will know him for the compassion he has shown them while a priest in times of trouble.

As a cardinal he strongly supported the work of Sciaf, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and made annual trips around the world including to Darfur, Rwanda and the Congo in aid of their work.

Yet all this will, for the moment, be washed away, forgotten as Scotland, the United Kingdom, the Catholic world comes to terms with a cardinal whose struggles with his sexuality and the confines of clerical celibacy clearly damaged others and destroyed his legacy.