Cardinal O’Brien’s brief statement this afternoon will have shaken the foundations of the Catholic church in Scotland. And the repercussions will surely be felt much further afield at what is already a difficult moment for the Vatican.
Before today’s statement it had been suggested that the allegations represented a personal tragedy for O'Brien. On some level that may be true, though right now sympathy from many people may be in short supply.
Even more importantly this should be a sobering moment for the Scottish Catholic establishment.
O’Brien’s statement begins by stating that he contested the initial allegations because they were ‘anonymous and non-specific’. Even if that was true, the fact that he clearly knew of moments in his past which were of a similar nature should call into question his honesty and integrity for the rebuttal.
His statement goes on to say that he wishes to apologise to those he has offended and asks for their forgiveness. Forgiveness is of course one of the hallmarks of Christian faith. As a Catholic I believe in it passionately. But it’s worth thinking about what his statement means and to whom.
His apology for ‘sexual conduct’ comes in the light of a sustained attack on lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This was an attack in which he has suggested that gay people were ‘captives of sexual aberrations.’ He argued that same-sex relationships ‘are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved.’ Last year he went on to say that same sex marriage was a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.’
I could go on but you get the point. This vague admission of ‘sexual conduct’ which ‘fell below the standards’ expected of him, comes from a man who has consistently used his position as an influential religious leader to spread obscene and deeply harmful messages to lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Does his apology to those who he has offended extend to them?
His apology is presumably directed at least in part at those who share his public views on homosexuality and same sex marriage. But even if you do, what are you to make of the hypocrisy at the heart of knowing all along that such moments were part of your past? Of then contesting allegations and then when the pressure mounted coming clean?
And if you were abused as a child by a Catholic priest, what on earth must you be thinking now?
And then we come to the Catholic establishment in Scotland. At the very least this has been a public relations disaster. At most it smells far worse than that. This is an establishment who has installed Archbishop Tartagila temporarily in Cardinal O’Brien’s place. Tartaglia, in case we should forget it, was the Catholic leader responsible for the appalling homophobic attack last year on the late David Cairns, an openly gay MP and former Catholic priest.
And this is an establishment whose media director, Peter Kearney, tried to suggest on Newsnight Scotland earlier this week that Cardinal O’Brien’s early resignation had nothing to do with the allegations which had emerged. Kearney’s position looked absurd and questionable at the time. What are we to make of it in the light of this afternoon’s events?
What do these things tell us about the Scottish Catholic establishment’s handling of this moment? Grossly inept and insensitive for sure. But is it any wonder that people are asking who knew what and when? Let’s face it if this was a public institution, heads would be rolling and the consequences would be dire.
What will the Catholic church establishment do now? These events, like those in Rome of late, have laid bare the culture of institutional secrecy at the heart of the church establishment. With secrecy comes vulnerability. And with vulnerability comes allegations and exposure. Closed institutions which lack accountability and are disconnected from their grassroots are inherently unhealthy. Will the church establishment finally face up to the truth staring right at it?
There is no shortage of questions in this piece. The Catholic church establishment in Scotland has a great deal to think about.