Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cardinal O'Brien's departure: another coverup

Elena Curti
The Table
8 March 2013

Cardinal Keith O'Brien's admission in his statement on 3 March following his hasty departure from office raises many more questions about his conduct than it answers. In it he wrote:

'I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.'

Is he referring to the unwanted sexual advances he is accused of making to four priests and a seminarian that are now in the public domain? Has he made sexual advances to other young priests and seminarians? Is it habitual behaviour that has continued right up to the present day? If so how did it affect his governance of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh?

Straightforward gay relationships are one thing - though of course a violation of the vow of celibacy - but a spiritual director or archbishop making passes at a seminarian and young priests is quite another. In the context of the Church's guidance on safeguarding, a seminarian is considered a vulnerable adult if his spiritual director behaves inappropriately towards him. The same could be argued of young priests if their archbishop makes unwanted sexual advances to them. These are the scenarios painted by the three serving priests and the priest (now no longer in ministry) whose complaints date from the 1980s and have featured in The Observer newspaper over the last two Sundays. A fifth priest made a similar complaint to Rome last October concerning a similar incident in 2001, though it would appear that he sought to keep the matter private. Even so, it found its way into The Times on 1 March.

The terms in which the four men have talked to The Observer reveal the pain and confusion they have felt down the years over at their treatment from a superior they should have been able to trust completely. As the former seminarian said of the relationship between priest and bishop: 'He's more than your boss, more than the CEO of your company. He has immense power over you. He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold ... he controls every aspect of your life.'

Now the Church's lack of transparency is compounding the suffering of these men. It will not confirm what happened when Cardinal O'Brien was summoned to Rome after the first priest made a complaint to the Congregation to Bishops last October. In this week's Tablet we report that a deal was brokered whereby the cardinal would resign as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in November but actually leave on his 75th birthday - the official retirement age for bishops - the following March, ie this month. If a parish priest is accused of sexual impropriety he is usually suspended from ministry immediately while the allegation is investigated. In this instance, Cardinal O'Brien was going to be allowed to retire with his integrity intact.

Nor is the Church giving details of its response to the four later complaints made to the papal nuncio which according to the Observer journalist were made on either 8 or 9 February two weeks before they appeared in the newspaper. A spokesman at the nunciature told The Tablet this week: 'I have been told to say nothing and can make no comment.' In Rome the director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, was similarly reticent.

Sources have complained that the cardinal's behaviour affected his governance of the diocese and that a culture of gay cronyism was allowed to develop. Certainly he would have been vulnerable to blackmail. But the most troubling aspect of this scandal is the harm his 'drunken fumblings' - as the priests concerned described some of the allegations - did to them. The cardinal was harsh in his criticism of same-sex couples who want to make a life-long commitment to each other in marriage yet it would appear he was prepared to violate a sacred trust. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

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