Damian Thompson

Keith O’Brien stripped of the rank of cardinal – an extraordinary disgrace for the Scottish Church

Keith O'Brien stripped of the rank of cardinal – an extraordinary disgrace for the Scottish Church
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Keith O'Brien, former Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, was today stripped of the rank of cardinal by Pope Francis. Technically he has resigned. But the statement above leaves us in little doubt that O'Brien has had the red hat forcibly removed from him. He's the first cardinal to lose his title since Louis Billot, a French Jesuit who resigned as cardinal in 1927 in protest at the Church's condemnation of the far-Right anti-Semitic Action Française movement. Billot was the only cardinal to resign in the 20th century. [Update: see discussion in the thread over O'Brien's title. This he has not lost, de jure, but de facto he is no longer a cardinal and I suspect Rome will come down on him like a ton of bricks if he clings on to it.]

Full marks to the Tablet for setting out the background to this extraordinary move a few days ago (my emphasis):

Following public accusations by a number of priests and one former priest, and following the cardinal’s resignation, the Pope appointed Bishop – now Archbishop – Scicluna, to speak to all those involved and report back to the Vatican.

One of the men who have accused Cardinal O'Brien of inappropriate sexual conduct said that despite Archbishop Scicluna's report being 'hot enough to burn the varnish' off the Pope's desk, the Church was moving with 'glacial' speed when it came to making public its findings.

The cardinal’s alleged victim expressed disgust that while a parish in Edinburgh was being closed, the Archdiocese had reportedly spent £200,000 on a retirement home for Cardinal O'Brien, in Northumberland.

O'Brien stands accused of making sexual advances to young men while also thunderously opposing gay marriage. He has admitted that he failed to keep his promise of celibacy over many years, up to and including his tenure as principal bishop of Scotland. The Scottish hierarchy of that era is today cast under a shadow. The boozy and genial O'Brien was not discreet in his behaviour, according to many sources. Forgive the cliché, but it seems that he was cloaked in a conspiracy of silence.

We still do not know who kept what quiet. But this sudden move is a disaster for O'Brien's successor, Archbishop Leo Cushley, who gave an interview to the Edinburgh Evening News on Monday that reads very much like last-minute damage limitation. No one is suggesting that the transparently decent Archbishop Cushley was involved in a cover-up. But this talk of 'glacial speed' in dealing with the case, and the row over O'Brien's retirement residence, will not help his chances of becoming a cardinal himself. Nor, I hope, is there any question of giving a red hat to Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, who has grovelled disgracefully to Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. The Scottish Catholic Church has recently turned into the episcopal wing of the SNP – a process begun by Keith Patrick O'Brien, who was easily wooed by Salmond over a glass or seventeen. (Rumour has it that Tartaglia would welcome a transfer to a curial post in Rome, which is curious.)

I wonder if I detect the hand of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor in all this – and for once I'm not having a go at the retired Archbishop of Westminster. He always kept his distance from Cardinal O'Brien – possibly because he suspected that something was not right. And he is close to Pope Francis.

I met Cardinal O'Brien once. He was a jolly soul, extrovert and boastful, the diametric opposite of our own unapproachable and meticulously cautious Cardinal Vincent Nichols. It's hard to know whether to feel sorry to feel for him: the extent of his wrongdoing has not come to light, more than two years after his hurried resignation as Archbishop.

Meanwhile, although there are signs of revival in the Scottish Catholic Church, let me stress once again that its old guard has been collectively shamed by Francis. This was a necessary decision by the Pope that, as a leading Catholic commentator told me just now, 'will go some way towards detoxifying our brand'. But why did it take so long?