Cardinal O'Brien admits sexual misconduct, but questions remain

By staff writers
March 3, 2013

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, until his resignation Britain's most senior Catholic leader, has admitted sexual misconduct following several allegations against him.

In a short statement issued without further elaboration or comment from the Scottish Catholic Media Office, the Cardinal declared: "In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them."

He continued "However, 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," he concluded.

Church sources immediately moved to try to close down further investigations. Catherine Peppinster, editor of the Tablet newspaper, said: "It's time to move on. Too many scandals in the Catholic church drag on and on, but this one has been dealt with speedily, and a line can be drawn."

But such sentiments are likely to offend and distress abuse victims, and the calls for proper procedure both within the Catholic Church and beyond, alongside concrete moves towards establishing openness, are likely to increase in the coming days - particularly as it emerged that the Vatican had known about the allegations for five months and had apparently hoped that they would slip away from vision as the Cardinal retired.

Moreover, observed BBC religion correspondent Robert Pigott: "As Cardinal O'Brien's statement is so conspicuously devoid of any detail, it seems to raise almost as many questions as it answers - particularly about the nature and timing of the occasions of that wrongdoing."

There are also questions about the veracity of repeated claims that the allegations were "anonymous", since the four accusers, three retired priests and one ex-priest, had made sworn statements, and their identity was known, if not public.

One of four men said he eventually went public despite being warned by clerics that he could "damage the Catholic Church's reputation".

Catherine Deveney, the journalist who reported allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Cardinal Keith O'Brien, said earlier today that the abuse claims had not been handled well by the Church. Those bringing forward the information about their mistreatment often felt as if they were directly or indirectly being accused of disloyalty, she said.

The Cardinal's office issued a warning to the Observer newspaper that it could face legal action after it first contacted him with the allegations. O'Brien, it was reported, "was consulting his lawyers".

In further disclosures this weekend, the paper reported one complainant as alleging: "He started fondling my body, kissing me and telling me how special I was to him and how much he loved me."

In a new interview, the former priest, who made his complaint to the Papal Nuncio in early February 2013, said that after his disclosures he sensed "the cold disapproval of the church hierarchy for daring to break ranks."

"I feel if they could crush me, they would," he commented.

It has also emerged that the Vatican was aware of another allegation dating back to 2001, made in October 2012.

On 2 March 2013, Scottish commentator Kevin McKenna gave a sharp assessment of the Church's dilemma. He wrote: "The damage to the church is incalculable. In response to last week's Observer story, the historian Tom Devine, a Catholic, described it as the church's biggest crisis since the Reformation. It means that the Scottish Catholic church has lost all authority to speak on matters of human relationships until it at least recognises the root of the problem. Quite simply, the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland is no longer fit for purpose. It hasn't been for a long time now: its default position is denial and concealment before accusing its critics of being motivated by bigotry.

"The Vatican says it will investigate the complaints of the cardinal's accusers. I have very little faith that an inquiry conducted in another country and of indeterminate legal structure and under the authority of another old man in Rome – identity, as yet, unknown – will deliver anything resembling a just outcome.

"Nothing less than a full-scale investigation into the structure and leadership of the Scottish Catholic church will suffice to begin the task of recovering its lost authority. The commission to oversee this must be headed by an overseas cardinal of impeccable character and must comprise clergy and lay people in equal measure."

Cardinal O'Brien, who was born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, had been the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since 1985 before his recent resignation.

* The Cardinal's statement: http://www.scmo.org/articles/statement-from-cardinal-obrien.html

* BBC interview with Catherine Deveney (before the admission): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21647060

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