The Cardinal Keith O’Brien gay sex scandal rumbles on unabated, but as I ate my breakfast this morning, I was greeted by the news that the Cardinal has now essentially admitted to the allegations made by three priests and a former priest last week. While it’s not unusual for priests to admit to these things, I would say that most tend to deny such allegations, especially at the beginning. I should be careful at this point and say that O’Brien hasn’t actually admitted to anything specific. The key section in his statement this morning is this:
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. To those I have offended I apologise and ask forgiveness. To the Catholic church and people of Scotland, I also apologise. I will now spend the rest of my life in retirement. I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic church in Scotland.
Given the almost monthly sex abuse stories that have found their way out of the church over the last couple of years, I would say his standards are right on the level. His statement does make for uncomfortable reading for several senior Scottish Catholics who for the past week have been downplaying the allegations and engaging in the church’s most skilled practice of damage limitation. Some had sought to rally around the Cardinal and branded the accusations as unsubstantiated, non-specific, and anonymous. Indeed, when the Observer first broke the story last week and contacted the Cardinal, his office warned the Observer it faced legal action over its decision to run the story.
There is some suggestion that the reason for the Vatican acting so quickly last week was not because it wants to deal more decisively with such cases or indeed the need for a decision before Pope Benedict left office. Two days before the abuse story broke, O’Brien gave a BBC interview in which he suggested that priests ought to be allowed to marry and have children. Catherine Pepinster, editor of the weekly Catholic newspaper the Tablet, said Benedict and his close aides may have been extremely irritated because O’Brien had promised to renounce his once liberal views on some church teachings when he became a Cardinal in 2003. On becoming a Cardinal the Vatican had made him swear an oath to uphold the teachings of the church, binding him to uphold its orthodox positions.
I have to say I expected this story to really drag on and on. There are plenty of cases where priests, having to deal with this kind of allegation, have sought to contest the accusations of their victims only to later admit to them. That process normally takes months not days. Despite not going into specifics, which of course no one would expect, the Cardinal’s statement is certainly the most frank and open admission I’ve ever seen by a priest in this situation. On the one hand the breaking of silence on the Cardinal’s part will stop some of rumor and speculation surrounding the story, but on the other it will only intensify around the specifics. In many ways the statement leaves more questions than answers. How long as such behavior been going on? Are the pressures of his dual life the root cause of his extreme denouncements (even for a Catholic) of equality and gay marriage?
He is now expected to face a full Vatican enquiry. Just how that will work, who will conduct it, and when it might happen remains up the air while we are without a Pope.