As one journalist said, Cardinal Keith O'Brien was not a monster, he was a weak man
The sad death of Cardinal Keith O’Brien has produced some sensible and generous reactions. As this magazine reports, his successor, Archbishop Leo Cushley, who administered the last rites to the Cardinal, said: “In life, Cardinal O’Brien may have divided opinion – in death, however, I think all can be united in praying for the repose of his soul, for comfort for his grieving family and that support and solace be given to those whom he offended, hurt and let down. May he rest in peace.” That is absolutely right.
The BBC tells us that Catherine Deveney, the journalist who uncovered the scandal that led to his downfall, had this to say: “He was a symptom of an organisation that had lost its way. Keith O’Brien was not a monster, he wasn’t an ogre – he was just a weak man. And I hope in the last years of his life when he took off the mitre, took off the cardinal’s robes, he found something more real. I hope he found peace at the end of his life and I think his victims would wish that for him too.” Those are kind and generous words.
The death of the Cardinal must remind us of all the difficult questions that his fall from grace first raised. For a start, when someone makes a complaint against a priest, especially against a high-ranking prelate, is our reaction the right one? As Alan Draper from In Care Abuse Survivors (INCAS), also a former advisor to the Catholic Church, observes in the same article: “The church continually showed a lack of compassion towards survivors, or any understanding of what they’ve suffered emotionally, physically and spiritually. And that is a key issue – the spiritual damage caused to abuse survivors. They were shocked and were concerned with a man with immense power who abused that power. What we are seeing is double standards and it is not acceptable.”
Well, quite. When a powerful person abuses their office and abuses others too, what is our initial reaction – to stand with the powerless or to rally round the powerful? This is something we really do need to bear in mind: self-defence must not be our initial and overriding reaction.
Again, the case of Keith O’Brien (and the case of others in similar situations) raises another difficult question: how effective is the selection process that chooses bishops, archbishops and cardinals? How good is the Church’s vetting? All the evidence suggests that there are far too many men who are not up to the job being allowed through.
But de mortuis nil nisi bonum. As the Guardian and Daily Telegraph obituaries record, Keith did a great deal of good in his life, which should not be forgotten. As the Telegraph concludes: “While many in the Church could not forgive the fallen Cardinal, he retained the sympathy of many ordinary Catholics, who remembered numerous small acts of kindness from the years of his pastoral ministry.”
Keith was certainly popular, and when he mingled with the people of God, he spoke to everyone, and came across as a genuine sort of man. He showed that aspect of his personality, as the Telegraph mentions, by referring to another, Italian, Cardinal as “a wee fat guy”. When he said that, he could hardly be accused of not saying what he meant. That sort of plain speaking is rather rare in the upper reaches of the Church. A journalist, a known critic of the Church, once told me she really liked Keith, as she called him, for his good looks, his genuine engagement with so many issues and with ordinary people. You came away from an encounter with Keith, she said, knowing you had met a real person, and seeing exactly why he had been chosen to be leader of the Church in Scotland.
And yet there was that one flaw. May God now be good to him, and may he rest in peace. And may healing come to those to those whom he offended, hurt and let down, to use Archbishop Cushley’s words.