Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s legacy destroyed

THE zenith of the ecclesiastical career of Keith O’Brien took place amid the sunshine of St Peter’s Square when, in the autumn of 2003, he was presented with the red beretta of a cardinal, so coloured to reflect his new vow to shed his blood for the good of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien

In a public display which other cardinals were said to have considered unbecoming he brandished a saltire with the enthusiasm of a football fan at Hampden to the delight of photographers whose pictures ran on the front page of newspapers around the world.

In the nadir of the ecclesiastical career of Keith O’Brien he returns once again to the front pages, not as a vision of joyous Catholic scotia, but of an old man crushed by cardinal sins.

How can Catholics come to terms with the janus faced leader of the Catholic Church: the cardinal who described gay marriage as a “grotesque subversion” in the knowledge that his own sexual conduct had “fallen below the standards” expected of a priest.

It is clear that the sexual feelings that all priests who have taken a vow of celibacy must keep under control appear to have broken through. There were allegations yesterday that sexual misconduct came after “excessive drinking”, while the four priests alleged O’Brien had attempted to touch, kiss or have sex with people in his care.

The cardinal’s public confession last night means that his career must now be viewed through a glass darkly, for there was evidence that his judgement and behaviour was not always sound. Then again, clearly neither was that of the Vatican and Pope John Paul II who appointed him.

For when it was announced, back in October, 2003 that he had been named as only the third cardinal in Scotland since the Reformation, Mario Conti, then Archbishop of Glasgow was privately devastated that his “safe pair of hands” had been bypassed in favour of a man who could be exceedingly incautious with his tongue. (Only two years previously O’Brien had found himself in hot water for described a senior Italian cardinal to the press as a “wee fat guy”.)

Within 24 hours of the news of his appointment, O’Brien said at an impromptu press conference at St Mary’s Cathedral that female priests, married clergy and contraception should now all be up for discussion. The papal nuncio in London was immediately instructed by furious Vatican officials to insist that O’Brien make a public statement of his fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

O’Brien did so quietly at a morning mass the following day, but the experience frightened him and may explain why he abandoned his previous liberal views in favour of attracting headlines such as comparing abortion to “two Dunblane massacres a day” or describing a new bill on human embryos as “Frankenstein” experiments and a “monstrous” attack on human rights. Or perhaps, as other believe, he simply saw this as his role as the successor to the pugilistic Cardinal Thomas Winning.

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