Complaints of Vatican whitewash as O’Brien leaves Scotland for penance in exile
by Catherine Deveney
The four men whose accusations of sexual misconduct led to the dramatic resignation of Britain’s leading Catholic cleric as archbishop have attacked a Vatican announcement last week that he will leave the country for a period of “prayer and penance”. The three priests and one ex-priest, whose complaints were first reported in the Observer in February, say Cardinal Keith O’Brien should have been sent for psychological treatment instead.
One of the priests warns: “Keith is extremely manipulative and needs help to be challenged out of his denial. If he does not receive treatment, I believe he is still a danger to himself and to others.”
The four men are demanding an investigation into O’Brien’s “predatory behaviour” and say that stripping him of his cardinal status should not be ruled out. Despite making statements to the papal nuncio three months ago, they have heard nothing about a formal investigation into the cardinal, who was a vociferous public opponent of homosexuality.
“Removing O’Brien from Scotland might temporarily reduce the embarrassment to the church authorities but this story has not been fully told yet,” says Lenny, the ex-priest complainant. “We have been patient but I’m still waiting to be told what, if any, process the church has in mind.”
“They’re all passing the buck on this,” agrees one of the priests. “It’s a smokescreen. We need an investigation and Keith needs to be challenged by professionals to acknowledge the damage he has done to people, himself and the church.”
The Vatican’s statement followed O’Brien’s recent return to Dunbar, in his old diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, where he was due to retire. Peter Kearney, director of communications for the Catholic church in Scotland, told the Observer that no one in Scotland had the authority to challenge O’Brien’s behaviour, his return to Scotland or his residence in church property. “We are part of the Roman Catholic church and the ultimate authority for the way the church functions in Scotland lies in Rome. The only person who is senior to the cardinal is the pope.”
“That,” says one complainant, “is farcical.” “I don’t care about red hats,” says another, “but if the red hat is shoring up his perceived power, it has to go.”
Although there is no official investigation by the Scottish church, behind the scenes Bishop Joseph Toal of Argyll and the Isles has been asked to talk informally to the complainants. “It’s been hard listening to what’s being said,” he admitted to the Observer. “But it’s important we hear what they’re saying and the gravity of the situation. If I can help in some way, I will.”
Calls for an investigation have been backed by Catholic theologian Professor Werner Jeanrond, master of St Benet’s Hall at Oxford University. “Instead of dealing with issues we are constantly presented with this half-baked solution of removing people. It is not a grown-up church handling this case. I am in favour of investigation on the personal level, so that he can own up to his concealment and own his own life again, but because he was in the clerical life it also has to be a formal investigation. We also have to have an investigation into why we are in this mess.”
O’Brien’s downfall reveals a bigger tragedy, argues Jeanrond. “As a church, we have failed to come to terms with homosexuality. Once and for all we have to face up to the fact that there are homosexuals, gays, lesbians and transsexuals.” Jeanrond has been shocked by the absence of an organised laity in Britain compared with other European countries. “As soon as something happens on the clerical side, the whole church is paralysed. That’s ridiculous. Is the whole of Jesus’s mission coming to an end because Keith O’Brien has sinned?”
The four complainants say an investigation is about justice, not vengeance. “I will give forgiveness if asked,” says one, “as long as the damage has been recognised. At times, we don’t do ourselves a lot of good by throwing pardon around like confetti without a change of heart. I am angry at the system that licked his boots and allowed him to get on with it.”
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