February has been a strange month for the Catholic Church. While those enthralled by the bubble that is the Vatican are still reeling after the Pope’s resignation, today, the most senior Catholic in Britain has been forced to step down amid allegations of “inappropriate behavior” dating back to the 1980s.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien (current holder of Stonewall’s ‘Bigot of the Year’ award) has been the Archbishop of St Andrews since 1985 and a Cardinal since 2003. He was due to step down from his post in March due to his age, but the Pope has now requested he leave early.
O’Brien has a repuation of being quite conservative, even for a Catholic, and often speaks out against gay marriage. After the Scottish government outlined plans last year to legalize gay marriage, he described it as “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.” In 2008, he described a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as a step towards “Nazi-style experiments.” In 2007, he courted controversy in the abortion debate, claiming that Scotland’s abortion rate was “two Dunblane massacres a day.” Dunblane is a small town in Scotland made infamous by a school shooting in 1996 in which 16 children under the age of 6 and one teacher lost their lives. Imagine an American religious leader comparing abortion to a whole bunch of “Newtown shootings” and you begin to understand the level of insensitivity and false analogy we’re dealing with here.
The story this weekend has moved pretty quickly. The news was first reported on Saturday that three priests and a former priest from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh complained to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, to make a series of allegations against the Cardinal. It is believed that at least part of the complaint alleges that the Cardinal developed an inappropriate relationship with one of the priests, resulting in a need for long-term psychological counseling. The questions grew louder when the Cardinal failed to lead mass on Sunday, and today it has been confirmed he has stepped down.
Each priest is alleging separate inappropriate incidents in their individual statements. For legal reasons they have not been identified, but the Guardian carried an interview with one of the ex-priests over the weekend. He alleges that while a 20-year-old seminarian at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange, Cardinal O’Brien made an inappropriate approach after night prayers. The former priest was ordained, but in his statement he explained that he resigned when O’Brien was promoted to bishop:
I knew then he would always have power over me. It was assumed I left the priesthood to get married. I did not. I left to preserve my integrity.
In separate statements from current priests, Priest A describes being happily settled in a parish when he claims he was visited by O’Brien and inappropriate contact between the two took place. Priest B claims that he was starting his ministry in the 1980s when he was invited to spend a week “getting to know” O’Brien at the archbishop’s residence. His statement alleges that he found himself dealing with what he describes as unwanted behavior by the Cardinal after a late-night drinking session. Priest C’s statement claims that O’Brien used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact. The priest was a young man being counseled by the Cardinal over personal problems.
The former priest offered an explaination as to why it has taken so long for all four to come forward:
You have to understand, the relationship between a bishop and a priest. At your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him. 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. You can’t just kick him in the balls.
The timing is odd but it’s probably the last chance the claimants will get to see the Cardinal, since he has already resigned his post as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh due to his age. For some reason, the moment a Cardinal turns 75, they are required to tender their resignation to the Pope, which is always accepted. I doubt it will be too long before this rule gets revisited in light of an aging population in general and more significantly a complete lack of a younger generation of priests.
There is some indication that the four claimants believe that if the Cardinal traveled to Rome to take part in the election of a new Pope, then the church will simply close ranks and not address their complaints. Indeed, one of the priests suggested that:
It tends to cover up and protect the system at all costs. The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability. If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.
I’m not sure about dismantled. More like disbanded.