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Cardinal Keith O'Brien – the flawed, outspoken Catholic leader who died on Monday 19 March.

Christopher Lamb - The Tablet - Fri, Mar 30th 2018

Cardinal Keith O'Brien – the flawed, outspoken Catholic leader who died on Monday

Christopher Lamb looks back over the life of the Scottish cardinal who fell from grace

Whatever people thought of Cardinal Keith O’Brien – and he was a man who divided opinion – there is no debate over his place in the Church’s history books.

The flawed, colourful and outspoken Scottish Catholic leader died on Monday. When allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, he became the first cardinal to “give up” his red hat since 1927. The claims by three serving priests and a former priest that he had committed “inappropriate acts” during the 1980s forced O’Brien to opt out of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis. Two years later, he renounced the “rights and duties” of a cardinal. It was a spectacular fall from grace.

O’Brien’s humiliation came at an extraordinarily dramatic moment. Just days before the allegations of O’Brien’s misconduct were made public, Benedict XVI had sent shockwaves across the Catholic world by announcing his resignation, and cardinals were beginning to gather in Rome to elect his successor. The last thing the Church needed was a sex scandal. O’Brien’s decision not to travel to Rome for the conclave was highly unusual.

There was nothing in Church law to prevent Cardinal O’Brien from taking part in the conclave – on the contrary, he was duty bound to attend, given that the most sacred task of a cardinal is to vote for a new Pope. The 2013 conclave saw Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Archbishop of Los Angeles, face down media pressure over what some felt was the more serious allegation of failing to protect children from sexual abuse. But O’Brien and the Vatican knew that he would have faced a brutal media gauntlet and would have become an embarrassing sideshow to the election of the next successor of St Peter. He had been shamed, and many in the Scottish Church were outraged.

While his downfall came before #MeToo and #TimesUp, the furore over O’Brien foreshadowed a time when careers end instantly following allegations of sexual impropriety. The cardinal was accused not only of sexual misconduct but of abusing power by promoting favourites and of exiling those he disliked. Complainants felt unable to speak out because of the power O’Brien, as their bishop, held over them. Who could they turn to?

The cardinal’s demise came thanks to an explosive news story that appeared in The Observer in February 2013, which was somewhat ironic, given his openness to reporters and cameras. When I edited The Tablet’s home news pages, O’Brien was frequently contactable on his mobile phone, and could be relied on to supply a punchy quote. Conscious of his position, he had a personal photographer. One Church commentator recalled that he had once seen O’Brien enter his cathedral with a suitcase in the shape of a mitre.

Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien was born in Ballycastle, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. His family moved to Scotland when he was 12: his father wanted a job in the civil service and this was impossible in his home country, because he was Catholic. The future cardinal’s faith was formed in post-war Clydebank, where the stability of Church, parish and home gave him the foundation stones for his life. After studying chemistry and mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, he decided to train for the priesthood. Ordained in 1965, the young Fr O’Brien worked in parishes before becoming spiritual director at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange, a seminary that closed in 1986, and then Rector at St Mary’s College, Blairs, another seminary that has since closed. He was installed as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in 1985 and appointed to the College of Cardinals in 2003.

A former St Andrew’s seminarian was one of those who accused O’Brien of “inappropriate acts”. The claimant, aged 20 at the time of the incident, accused his former spiritual director of making inappropriate sexual advances after night prayers. At least three other priests made allegations against the cardinal which were formally lodged with Britain’s then papal ambassador, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, who passed them to Rome. O’Brien initially contested the allegations but later admitted that his sexual behaviour had “fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”.

Following his election, Pope Francis commissioned an inquiry into the cardinal’s conduct by the Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top sex abuse prosecutor. This led to O’Brien being stripped of his cardinalatial privileges while technically retaining his title. Archbishop Scicluna’s report, which was never made public, reportedly contained a large number of complaints against O’Brien. It was described as “hot enough to burn the varnish off the Pope’s desk”.

To his friends, “Keith” may not have been perfect but he was loyal and stuck to what he believed. Avuncular, sociable, with a slightly rambling and parochial air, he pushed himself hard, working seven days a week. The cardinal was not afraid to speak out against nuclear weapons and poverty and he was a tireless supporter of the Scottish Catholic overseas aid agency, Sciaf. During a visit with the cardinal to Myanmar, former Sciaf director Paul Chitnis told The Scotsman how O’Brien had comforted a man who had lost his family in the 2008 floods. The cardinal, visibly moved, placed his own rosary into the man’s hands.

O’Brien was known for being refreshingly open. He once astonished reporters in Rome during a synod of bishops on Europe with his remarks about how cardinals assess potential papal candidates. “Bishops gossip just as much as everyone else,” he said in 1999. “I saw Tettamanzi [the late Archbishop of Milan] and I said: ‘Who’s the wee fat guy?’ I know the famous ones, like [Cardinal] Martini and so forth. Yes, bishops do talk about it.”

His spontaneous, outspoken frankness regularly created headlines. He likened abortion to the Dunblane massacre, attacked the Labour Party for downplaying Christian values, and spoke out against the ban on Catholics becoming or marrying British monarchs. His description of same-sex marriage as “madness” and as “grotesque” got him into hot water. Not long after, the revelations about his own behaviour emerged.

It would be wrong to describe O’Brien as a reactionary. On internal Church matters O’Brien was open to reform. He called for mandatory clerical celibacy to be reviewed and for a “full and open” discussion of homosexuality and contraception. His progressive positions meant that before John Paul II gave him a red hat in 2003, Rome – unusually – ordered him to sign a pledge to follow Catholic teaching. O’Brien had been a surprise choice for elevation; most had expected the Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, to become Scotland’s cardinal. 

In November 2012, Benedict XVI accepted O’Brien’s resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh nunc pro tunc – “now for later”. The plan was for him to step down on his 75th birthday. This course of action is believed to have been triggered by allegations made to Rome about O’Brien’s behaviour. When the allegations became public, in one of the last acts of his papacy, Benedict XVI accepted O’Brien’s resignation on 25 February 2013. 

In retirement, the cardinal planned at first to live in a parish in East Lothian, near Edinburgh, but his presence in the archdiocese became too divisive and he moved to Northumberland.

As his health declined, the Little Sisters of the Poor cared for him in Newcastle. Later, he was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Newcastle. He received the last rites on his 80th birthday, the Feast of St Patrick, and died at 1am on Monday 19 March, the Feast of St Joseph, the patron saint of a happy death.

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