Democrat special

The prelate who could have been Pope is buried far from cheering crowds

O'Brien at RFed Mass

Dumbarton-educated Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien.

Special report by Bill Heaney

Dumbarton-educated Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, the disgraced former head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, was buried quietly without pomp or ceremony beside his parents in an Edinburgh cemetery on Thursday.

A Requiem Mass took place earlier at the Church of St Michael, Westmoreland Road, Newcastle, when the main celebrant and homilist was Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster.

“In recent days, the life of Cardinal Keith has been laid bare,” said Cardinal Nichols. “We all know its lights and its darkness; we need not spend time talking about them even more for he has given us the key words.

“In his last will and testament, he wrote: ‘I ask forgiveness of all I have offended in this life. I thank God for the many graces and blessings he has given me especially the Sacrament of Holy Orders.’ Today, as we prayer for the repose of his soul, we also pray for all those he offended and ask God to strengthen them at this time.”

Cardinal Nichols added: “There is a truth, deep in our Catholic tradition, often forgotten in our days, yet very relevant to this moment. It is this: that every funeral Mass is above all else a prayer for God’s mercy for the one who has died. So often services after a death are seen to be a time for celebrating a life, for recognising the great achievements of a life now ended and for treasuring happy memories. Yet the emphasis of our tradition is somewhat different. Always, we gather to ask God’s mercy for the one who has died, today for Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

“We do so with trust and love, knowing that God’s promise of mercy is enduring and that our prayers, entering into the presence of the Father through, with and in Jesus, the beloved Son, will be heard.

“In recent days, the life of Cardinal Keith has been laid bare. We all know its lights and its darkness; we need not spend time talking about them even more for he has given us the key words. In his last will and testament, he wrote: ‘I ask forgiveness of all I have offended in this life. I thank God for the many graces and blessings he has given me especially the Sacrament of Holy Orders.’ Today, as we prayer for the repose of his soul, we also pray for all those he offended and ask God to strengthen them at this time.”

Mourners were asked to make donations to SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund) in lieu of flowers.  Cardinal O’Brien was president of SCIAF when he announced his shock resignation five years ago.

The cardinal’s funeral took place at Mount Vernon Cemetery, Edinburgh, when the prelate was interred in the grave of his mother and father, Alice and Mark, in accordance with wishes he expressed himself.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Church said: “The funeral arrangements were agreed following consultation with the family of Cardinal O’Brien, the executor of his will, and the Holy See as represented by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster.”

Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien and Archbishop Cushley, who may succeed him.

Cardinal O’Brien, who was brought up in Dalmuir, became critically ill after a fall on St Patrick’s Day, which was his 80th birthday, died in hospital Newcastle on Tyne early on Monday.

He had been living in exile there in the quiet village of Edington, Northumberland, and at a nursing home in Newcastle, since his widely publicised fall from grace five years ago as one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal O’Brien, who was himself a gay person, made significant enemies by becoming outspoken in his opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage.

He was branded a bigot and a hypocrite by the Stonewall campaign group for his anti-gay comments.

However, he vanished from his post as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh on the day he was scheduled to fly out to Rome to take part in the conclave which elected Pope Francis to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who had announced his retirement.

He called off suddenly from saying a public Mass that morning in St Mary’s Cathedral amid allegations of sexual misconduct by four adult male clerics and a seminarian and left his dismayed brother bishops and priests to pick up the pieces.

While he initially denied the allegations made against him, O’Brien later admitted they were true, apologised and said: “My sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

Even then the Catholic Church in Scotland attempted to draw attention away from his behaviour which, had he not been an establishment figure, would have attracted the attention of the police.

The Scottish Catholic Observer told its rapidly dwindling readership: “Media speculation that Cardinal O’Brien is being ‘forced’ to step down is inaccurate.

“While Archbishop Tartaglia takes over as president of the Bishop’s Conference, His Eminence’s frontline role remains as cardinal.”

The Glasgow-based weekly added: “There has been premature speculation in the national secular press about Cardinal Keith O’Brien ‘stepping down’ and the reasons why. While no longer president of Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, as cardinal His Eminence remains the most senior Catholic clergyman in Scotland until his retirement.

“While Cardinal O’Brien has had a period of ill health and has come under attack for defending Church teaching on marriage, the fact remains the torch is naturally being passed to the next generation of bishops …no one is being ‘forced’ out.”

His death was announced by his successor, Archbishop Leo Cushley, who was appointed to the archbishopric, but not as Scotland’s only cardinal.

It was Archbishop Cushley, who travelled to England to pray with Cardinal O’Brien and the local bishop, Bishop Seamus Cunningham, who administered the Last Rites to the dying prelate.

O’Brien was allowed by the Pope to retain the title and red hat which in normal circumstances would have allowed him to vote in papal elections.

Archbishop Cushley, who is widely tipped to be Scotland’s new cardinal, asked for prayers for the repose of the late cardinal’s soul and for those people he had hurt during his lifetime.

The archbishop posted on his Twitter account: “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 hurt and let down. May he rest in peace.”

Archbishop Cushley’s considerable diplomatic skills – he was trained as a Vatican diplomat – came into play in regard to the arrangements for Cardinal O’Brien’s funeral.

The speculation that Ballycastle would be the venue was frowned upon by many Catholics in Northern Ireland and the prospect of this was immediately set aside.

The Church does not have its troubles to seek there following revelations that the youngest brother of Mary McAleese, a former President of the Republic Ireland, was the victim of sexual abuse by a high-profile priest at a Catholic college in Newry.

The local bishop there resigned recently when he became embroiled in a festering row over his decision to celebrate a Requiem Mass for the abuser.

Usually, the death of a member of the Catholic hierarchy is an occasion of pomp and ceremony and deceased prelates are interred in the crypt of their own cathedral.

However, this privilege was withheld from Cardinal O’Brien.

There were strident calls three years ago for a Vatican report into the sexual misconduct of Cardinal O’Brien to be made public.

O'Brien Tablet coverThe UK’s foremost Catholic journal, The Tablet, speculated that there were as many as 40 victims – mainly priests and seminarians – of the predator prelate.

An editorial in the paper said: “The victims of O’Brien’s sexual misconduct, mainly fellow clergy, suffered greatly. They felt trapped and powerless because of his seniority.  It is still not clear how many there were – around 40 has been suggested – and though the new archbishop will need time to address all the issues, there is nothing in place so far that looks likely to give the victims justice.

“It is suggested that many of the 40 have not made formal allegations, though they are known to fellow victims. That indicates a lack of confidence in the Church’s procedures for dealing with such complaints.”

Archbishop Cushley, said the actions of his predecessor, who has apologised for his sexual failings, had been damaging the Church’s credibility and was demoralising for some Catholics.

His comments came after Cardinal O’Brien resigned the “rights and privileges” of a cardinal.

The Tablet said it had spoken to one of O’Brien’s priest accusers who said there were multiple incidents of sexual misconduct by the cardinal against seminarians and young clergy.

That priest, who continues to remain anonymous, said he believed that at least 40 cases took place from 1985, the year the cardinal became archbishop, until 2010.

He is said to have described how the cardinal made an “unmistakeable” sexual advance to him at Archbishop’s House in Edinburgh in 1990 which the priest, who is not gay, said he rebuffed. The cardinal acted afterwards “as if nothing had happened … he blanked it completely.”

Asked why he did not make a complaint at the time, the priest replied: “Who would have believed me? Who could I have gone to that would have taken me seriously. The cardinal had his lawyers and they would have crushed me.”

He added: “You’re controlled. You have no freedom of movement, of action. He can determine what your life is like.”

Even more seriously, according to The Tablet, the abused priest alleged that the cardinal approached individuals in the guise of a confessor in order to groom them for sexual contact.

“This is not a matter of people coming to him to confess, but him approaching them,” he was quoted as saying.

The priest said clergy might not have complained if Cardinal O’Brien had had a long-term partner – “It’s not the fact that he was gay, which everyone knew about. But that he was a predator,” he said.

These allegations were put by The Tablet to O’Brien for a response, but none was forthcoming.

Archbishop Cushley welcomed an apology from the cardinal and admitted his behaviour “distressed many, it demoralised faithful Catholics and made the Church less credible to those who are not Catholic”.

When asked if the cardinal’s behaviour had led to mismanagement of the archdiocese a spokesman said it “does not believe that any such mismanagement has occurred.” He added, however: “The archdiocese will always take seriously any allegations or complaints concerning mismanagement and will deal with these appropriately”.

Under the heading “abuse of power in the Church,” The Tablet stated that the stripping by Pope Francis of O’Brien’s rights and the privileges of his office, coupled with an admission by his successor that his behaviour had made the Catholic Church in Scotland “less credible” and “might not be enough, sadly, to bury this sorry affair and let healing begin.”

The Tablet editorial went on: “There were major allegations against O’Brien when he was Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. The first was that he was a hypocrite when he outspokenly attacked the proposal for gay marriage.

“His exposure as a gay man who had made multiple unwanted sexual advances fatally undermined the Church’s message in what was already a tense debate.

“The reputational damage has been done; he has apologised and paid the penalty.”

It added however: “It is not so easy to lay to rest the allegation that he made some appointments in his archdiocese based on favouritism. That means the essential problem – abuse of power under the protection of the Church’s hierarchical structure – may still be present…

“When bishops are accused of erring in faith or morals, the matter is usually dealt with, in the first instance, by the nuncio, the local representative of the Pope. “However, he may not understand the local culture; nuncios usually have a very small junior staff; their conduct is bureaucratic and secretive; they have a limited capacity to investigate.

“Yet allegations of sexual misconduct are always difficult to handle, and institutional pressures are strong.

“In the case of O’Brien, the nuncio seems to have acted swiftly. But in 2009 the nunciature in Ireland was so savagely criticised for failing to cooperate with an official inquiry into child abuse by clergy that there was a serious breach between the Government and the Holy See (The Republic closed its embassy in the Vatican).

“All of which suggests that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, needs to take a long, hard look at how nuncios handle allegations of sexual abuse involving both children and vulnerable adults.

“Had there been a system in place in which clergy and laity had confidence, it is arguable that Cardinal O’Brien would have been stopped in his tracks long ago.”


Cardinal O’Brien blesses Scotland’s judges at a ceremony in Edinburgh.

In her blog on The Tablet website Elena Curti, a senior journalist on the paper, stated that Pope Francis must hope that his swift, decisive action against O’Brien would draw a line under a scandal.

She added: “The Pope’s personal intervention lies behind the announcement that O’Brien is surrendering the duties and trappings of a cardinal and the repetition of his profound apologies for sexual misdemeanours.

“It is an appropriate sanction against the breathtaking hypocrisy of a church leader who made advances to seminarians and young priests yet nevertheless felt entitled to rail against homosexuality and gay marriage in the bluntest terms.

“A story such as O’Brien’s is a reminder of the human weakness that is common to us all. It is hard to find it in our hearts to forgive someone who has betrayed our trust. As Christians we have to be merciful but it’s tough.

“Mercy must be accompanied by justice. Forgiving him does not mean the full implications of what he did should remain hidden.

“We still don’t know whether O’Brien was someone who sporadically shed in his inhibitions when he’d had a few drinks and then felt profoundly ashamed or whether his was a pattern of coercive behaviour and abuse of power and patronage.”

Curti referred to a quote from one of O’Brien’s accusers saying that the report prepared for Francis was “hot enough to burn the varnish off the Pope’s desk”.

The O’Brien report was prepared by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, previously chief prosecutor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, someone reputed to have the drive and determination to uncover the truth.

Curti added: “It’s important to know if Cardinal O’Brien promoted priests not on the basis of their abilities but because they were his favourites.

“It is also alleged that likewise, that competent men of integrity were blocked, either because they spurned his advances or, because they challenged him over his behaviour.

“This whole matter came to light because five men – four priests and one ex-priest – complained that O’Brien made unwanted sexual advances to them.

“The circumstances vary but a common factor in these allegations is that O’Brien was in a position of authority over vulnerable adults, either as their seminary rector or their archbishop.

“If Archbishop Scicluna found this to be true, O’Brien’s offence is much more serious than him simply breaking is vow of celibacy.”

Finally, she stated that Catholics in Scotland would be grateful that Cardinal O’Brien was well and truly off the scene – “but wary about whether he has left an unwholesome legacy in his former Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

“Without the publication of Archbishop Scicluna’s report, or at least a summary of it that protects the identity of complainants and witnesses, they are not in a position to judge for themselves.”

Inevitably, there was considerable support for O’Brien, although much of it was met with dismay by the “ordinary” adherents to the faith in the pews.

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist Bruce Kent said critics should shut up about his admitted “inappropriate” sexual behaviour.

But James Kelly, who described himself as one of those “ordinary” Catholics from Glasgow, said Kent and his fellow sympathisers did not know what they were talking about.

Kent, a former priest, expressed his views in a letter to The Tablet.

He wrote: “Cardinal O’Brien has lost his job, status and public respect. He has made his remorse clear. Do we need more anonymous allegations?

“Could we not now just pray for him and hope that he will find other ways of living out his Christian calling?

“Whatever his failings, the man I knew was, and I’m sure is now, warm hearted, generous, approachable and hospitable.

“He was also brave enough to speak out, without ifs and buts, about the immorality of weapons of mass destruction – both the threats and the use.”

Mr Kelly replied however: “Unlike your distinguished correspondents, I cannot find myself in any kind of judicial mode with regard to Cardinal Keith O’Brien

“But in an environment that your correspondents in Durban, Douai and London N4 are so obviously ill prepared to understand, Scottish Catholics have to live daily with his activities, both personally and in the community.

“The latter point is very important in a country where identification of another’s religion can be more important than the practise of one’s own.

“Cardinal O’Brien may well have confirmed the deepest suspicions of other religions in Scotland about Romanism well into the foreseeable future.

“Even that lifetime burden, which it will be, pales into insignificance beside the impact of the Cardinal O’Brien affair on the relationship between ordinary Catholics and the Scottish hierarchy.

“Ordinary Scottish Catholics know that the Catholic Church here is a shambles.

“At the lowest level of the relationship between the flock and its shepherds, it is surely only courteous for the Scottish bishops to admit this publicly, outline the extent of what can only be called the corruption involved, and enlist what remains of the Scottish flock’s dogged, battered loyalty to a movement forward into the future. It is, at this point, the least they can do.”

Mr Kelly was right about the controversy not going away when in 2015 there were calls for an honorary degree from St Andrews University to be revoked due to admission of sexual impropriety.


Cardinal O’Brien at the Red Mass in Edinburgh.

Professor Manfredi La Manna wrote: “I, for one, would not recognise as a colleague someone who admitted abusing his position of power for sexual gratification with subordinates.”

The university decided against this noting, “… that revocation cannot change or ameliorate the wrongs of the past and that, notwithstanding the very real hurt and loss caused by the actions of the honorand, it would be no more than an empty gesture.”

Supporters of O’Brien objected to the church requiring the shamed prelate to leave Scotland.

Canon John Creanor threatened legal action to prevent O’Brien’s “forced exile”, and said he had a legal team ready to fight any such imposition.

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh of the Scottish Episcopal Church, said that forcing O’Brien into exile would breach international law.

Holloway likened O’Brien’s forced exile to the tactics of extraordinary rendition (extrajudicial transfer) of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The four priests who complained against O’Brien said he needed psychological counselling rather than prayer and penance.

One of them said: “Keith is extremely manipulative and needs help to be challenged out of his denial. If he does not receive treatment, I believe he is still a danger to himself and to others.”

The four accusers believed there was a smokescreen, with the full story untold, and wanted an investigation to reveal the extent of O’Brien’s actions.

Throughout the scandal, the Catholic Church in Scotland was accused of a failure to act. O’Brien was still Britain’s most senior Catholic.

Journalists were told only Rome could handle the O’Brien affair; nobody in Scotland had authority to challenge a cardinal.

According to award-winning journalist Catherine Deveney writing in The Observer, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, who was temporary leader of St Andrews and Edinburgh following O’Brien’s resignation, failed to confront the issue, and behind the scenes “church insiders” were critical of him. One told her that he was “completely lacking in leadership qualities”.

Deveney said that this issue was not about personal failure, but systemic failure, and reported that theologian Werner Jeanrond said:  “As a church, we have failed to come to terms with homosexuality. The highest clerical representative of the church is himself a victim of the system which didn’t allow him to own his homosexuality.”

She added that there were many other scandals involving Scottish clergy.

Misdeeds included sexual misconduct, heavy drinking, pay-offs to cover scandals and serious abuse, and claimed that “O’Brien knows where the bodies lie. And the hierarchy knows he knows”.

In Deveney’s opinion the issue was not about Scottish clergy alone, but clergy worldwide.

O’Brien is reported to have blocked an independent inquiry into cases of clerical sexual abuse covering 60 years before he resigned.

The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland in 2011 commissioned a report into allegations of abuse, but it was halted the following year when its then head, O’Brien, withdrew his support.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said that a “national audit” was not possible without the support of the Cardinal – and the analysis was stopped.

The intervention was revealed in a letter to the The Tablet by the retired Archbishop of Glasgow, Dr Mario Conti.

He said the intention of the Bishops was to publish the results of the audit, but its scope was not clear.

A police investigation was under way at that time into allegations of historic sexual abuse at two Catholic boarding schools.

More than 20 people came forward to say they were victims of physical and sexual abuse by a number of Benedictine monks who ran the Fort Augustus Abbey school and Carlekemp, its feeder school in East Lothian, from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Both schools are now closed.

The Bishop of Aberdeen, the Right Rev Hugh Gilbert, apologised to former pupils of the fee-paying school during Mass.

He said: “It is a most bitter, shaming and distressing thing that in this former Abbey school a small number of baptised, consecrated and ordained Christian men physically or sexually abused those in their care. All that can be done should be done for the victims.”

Following his resignation, O’Brien, then 75, stated that he would play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland and was said to have left the country and gone to Ireland for a period of “spiritual renewal and reflection”

Hugely embarrassed, the Catholic bishops in Scotland decided to ask Andrew MacLellan, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, to chair an inquiry and prepare a report on clerical abuse.

That report, launched at an extraordinary media conference in Edinburgh where reporters were barred from asking questions from the floor, was described next day as “a whitewash”.

The bishops, none of whom was present at the conference, were uncomfortable with the media reaction and set up yet another inquiry under Dame Helen Liddell, a former MP.

A search on the internet failed to find any details of the outcome of MacLellan or the progress of the Liddell hearings.

Cardinal O’Brien was born in Ballycastle, County Antrim, and spent his teenage years at St Patrick’s High School in Dumbarton.

His father, Mark, a native of Wexford Town in the Republic of Ireland, joined the Royal Navy and served for 22 years in the Service including the six years of the Second World War, finishing his career at Faslane on the Gareloch.

Mr O’Brien was awarded the DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) for his services in the Arctic convoys and retired from naval service in 1947.

He passed the Forces entry into the Civil Service and worked as a Customs and Excise Officer in Customs House in Clyde Street, Glasgow, while the family lived with him in Clydebank for five years.

He then got promotion to the Edinburgh office and worked at Customs House, Leith, until he retired.

The Cardinal has one brother, two years younger than himself –Terence Mark O’Brien – a married man who now with his wife, Barbara, lives in retirement in Portugal.


Pictures by Bill Heaney

One comment

  1. A very well written and presented article Bill, a scandal all was covered up, and agree with everything you highlighted, but very difficult as it is Condem The Sin, not the Sinner.

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