Saturday, May 18, 2013

Cardinal O'Brien Represents A Major Challenge For Pope Francis. Business As Usual Won't Deal With It

I can't say I was surprised to find a photo of Cardinal O'Brien with the pedophile Jimmy Savile. Apparently they did a lot of fundraising together.  O'Brien did revoke Savile's papal knighthood after the explosion of allegations against Savile surfaced in the British Press.

Pope Francis has a mess on his hands.  The mess is Cardinal Keith O'Brien and what O'Brien really represents.  In Cardinal O'Brien's case it's not just the worst aspects of clericalism, it is also the worst aspects of the official Church teaching on homosexuality, and the seemingly untouchable status of reaching high rank in the Church.  O'Brien's behavior of harassing and abusing his lower clergy is of a different order from the kinds of sexual harassment laity encounter in their work places. In theory and practice laity have resources and systems of accountability they can use to get some justice.  This is true even in male dominated professions like the military.  Although the US Military has a spotty record to say the least, when the evidence is there, even highly decorated generals like David Petraeus can be disciplined and forced to resign. Not so Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church and O'Brien is hardly the only Cardinal who used his position for sexual favors with impunity, for decades, and without fear of sanction.

Cardinal O'Brien has been 'ordered' by the Vatican to leave Scotland for the Catholic version of penitential R&R.  O'Brien seems to have incurred this penalty because he couldn't stop himself from engendering more publicity. He failed to 'let this die down and blow over' like a good Cardinal should. I strongly suspect he is being publicly penalized because many Cardinals are seriously upset with the threat O'Brien's  press exposure is to them personally.  The following is from today's Guardian UK.  It aptly discusses these points and others.  It also debunks some of the misinformation that is currently making the media rounds.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien still a danger, say abuse accusers

 Catherine Deveney - The Observer - 5/18/2013
The four men whose accusations of sexual misconduct led to the dramatic resignation of Britain's leading Catholic cleric as archbishop have attacked a Vatican announcement last week that he will leave the country for a period of "prayer and penance". The three priests and one ex-priest, whose complaints were first reported in the Observer in February, say Cardinal Keith O'Brien should have been sent for psychological treatment instead.

One of the priests warns: "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 men are demanding an investigation into O'Brien's "predatory behaviour" and say that stripping him of his cardinal status should not be ruled out. Despite making statements to the papal nuncio three months ago, they have heard nothing about a formal investigation into the cardinal, who was a vociferous public opponent of homosexuality.

"Removing O'Brien from Scotland might temporarily reduce the embarrassment to the church authorities but this story has not been fully told yet," says Lenny, the ex-priest complainant. "We have been patient but I'm still waiting to be told what, if any, process the church has in mind."

"They're all passing the buck on this," agrees one of the priests. "It's a smokescreen. We need an investigation and Keith needs to be challenged by professionals to acknowledge the damage he has done to people, himself and the church." (It's certain O'Brien won't be challenged by his own professional peers.)

The Vatican's statement followed O'Brien's recent return to Dunbar, in his old diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, where he was due to retire. Peter Kearney, director of communications for the Catholic church in Scotland, told the Observer that no one in Scotland had the authority to challenge O'Brien's behaviour, his return to Scotland or his residence in church property. "We are part of the Roman Catholic church and the ultimate authority for the way the church functions in Scotland lies in Rome. The only person who is senior to the cardinal is the pope."

"That," says one complainant, "is farcical." "I don't care about red hats," says another, "but if the red hat is shoring up his perceived power, it has to go." (That is a prime issue--the red hat and the type of governance it represents.  Just as it was for Cardinals Law and Bevilaqua and Rigalli and Mahony and Egan and on and on and on.)

Although there is no official investigation by the Scottish church, behind the scenes Bishop Joseph Toal of Argyll and the Isles has been asked to talk informally to the complainants. "It's been hard listening to what's being said," he admitted to the Observer. "But it's important we hear what they're saying and the gravity of the situation. If I can help in some way, I will." (But of course, as far as exacting some measure of justice, you can't help in any way at all.)

Calls for an investigation have been backed by Catholic theologian Professor Werner Jeanrond, master of St Benet's Hall at Oxford University. "Instead of dealing with issues we are constantly presented with this half-baked solution of removing people. It is not a grown-up church handling this case. I am in favour of investigation on the personal level, so that he can own up to his concealment and own his own life again, but because he was in the clerical life it also has to be a formal investigation. We also have to have an investigation into why we are in this mess."

O'Brien's downfall reveals a bigger tragedy, argues Jeanrond. "As a church, we have failed to come to terms with homosexuality. Once and for all we have to face up to the fact that there are homosexuals, gays, lesbians and transsexuals." Jeanrond has been shocked by the absence of an organised laity in Britain compared with other European countries. "As soon as something happens on the clerical side, the whole church is paralysed. That's ridiculous. Is the whole of Jesus's mission coming to an end because Keith O'Brien has sinned?" (I suppose it does when clerical deference is so ingrained that it becomes all mixed up with the authority of Jesus---exactly as all the ingraining is designed to do.)

The four complainants say an investigation is about justice, not vengeance. "I will give forgiveness if asked," says one, "as long as the damage has been recognised. At times, we don't do ourselves a lot of good by throwing pardon around like confetti without a change of heart. I am angry at the system that licked his boots and allowed him to get on with it." (So am I.)


The Cardinal O'Brien story is one of those Catholic stories that got temporarily lost in the pageantry of a papal election and the Easter season and the sheer novelty of Pope Francis.  I, however, have not forgotten that the accusations against Cardinal O'Brien reached EP Benedict's desk three days before he retired.  Nor have I forgotten the report written by Benedict's three cardinal investigators and left for Pope Francis to peruse at his leisure.  Rumors before the papal resignation/election cycle intimated that gay issues in the upper clergy were prominent in this report.  That would hardly be shocking news and I suspect it is information that is probably underscored by the allegations against Cardinal O'Brien.

The Cardinal O'Brien story is truly a mess for Pope Francis and I have my doubts about whether he is the Pope who can meaningfully deal with it.  It is first and foremost an issue of unbelievable clerical hubris in which Cardinal O'Brien acted on his understanding that he was untouchable in Scotland.  A personal belief which was directly verified by the Archdiocese' own spokesman.  And yet this begs the question why O'Brien also acted as if he was untouchable by Rome until Benedict's resignation and that reason may be contained in that report of Benedict's three octogenarian cardinals.  If O'Brien represents business as usual in the cardinal ranks, reforming the curia will take more than shuffling lines of communication and downsizing the curia.  It will take changing the clerical culture itself.  This is one case of reform where it certainly seems starting at the top and having that change cascade down is going to have to be the chosen path.  For all of Francis' talk of tacking careerism in the Church it seems to me the first place to start is to demonstrate there will be no advantage to holding higher clerical offices.  The operative principle should be the higher a man progresses the more stringent the accountability.

The second issue which O'Brien represents is the sick expression of the 'homosexual lifestyle' in the priesthood.  I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Werner Jeanrond, the Church has to come to grips with the fact there are real people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual, and transgendered people in God's creation.  The Church has to face the fact these are not disorders, they are facts of human life.  These are people, equally God's children.  They are not just 'sexually deviant acts' or 'gender assignments'.

Unfortunately I am not convinced that Pope Francis is the right pope to deal with this aspect of the O'Brien debacle either.  Nothing Francis has done to this point indicates his ideas of gender and sexuality have evolved to take the Church to some more 'grown up' position as advocated by Professor Jeanrond.  Sending O'Brien off on some short term penitential placement is not dealing with any of the really important dysfunctions the O'Brien case raises. O'Brien truly represents a pastoral and reform challenge for Pope Franics.  I hope and pray Francis is up to it. 


  1. And the RCC march to ethical irrelevance goes on and on. The civil authorities are the only ones that can authoritatively investigate these criminals.

  2. It does seem to be that way. I think the saddest thing in the article is the admission the Vatican is not conducting a formal investigation into the allegations against O'Brien. Just because he resigned doesn't mean there isn't more to investigate. The lack there of speaks volumes.

  3. See following NY Times article. All whistle blowing activities should be taken to civil authorities...

  4. That's an encouraging article for a number of reasons. I'm glad Tom Doyle is joining this group. Therapeutically, it's probably going to be good for him, since the Church has demonstrated it's perfectly willing to abuse it's whistle blowers without any compunction. I'm more and more coming to the conclusion it isn't grace which fuels the institutional face of Catholicism--it's self promoting abuse dynamics. Maybe Pope Francis needs to start talking about the self promoting aspects of the Church as well as the self referential aspect.

  5. I'm not convinced the priests' and ex-priest's demand that O'Brien be sent for "psychological treatment" instead of the Vatican's prescription of Exile and Prayer and Penance, is practical.

    Psychologists must always work ethically and within their professional Practice Guidelines when working with people regarding homosexual behaviour. Psychological Practice Guidelines on LGBT sexuality reject the notion that LGBT sexual behaviour is pathological or sinful; LGBT sexual behaviour is instead a normal expression of human diversity.

    The fundamental problem is that no experienced psychologist who is competent in dealing with abusive sexual exploitation of adult subordinates (which is what O'Brien appears to need) could do so ethically, and in a way that is compatible with the Church's teaching on the unacceptability of LGBT sexual behaviour, and still comply with their Professional Practice Guidelines.

    I agree with the priests' and ex-priest's contention that Exile, Penance and Prayer won't address his abusive and exploitative behaviour of subordinates, but I can't see a way to make ethical and professionally appropriate psychological treatment achievable in a way that would be acceptable to the Vatican.

  6. I think you have excellent points Chris. The only option I can see is if the therapist dealt strictly with the abusive and exploitative aspects, divorcing these two attributes from any question of sexuality. This would essentially be treating O'Brien's pattern as one similar to the male on male sexual abuse in prisons. It wouldn't have to deal with any underlying homosexual attributes----unless O'Brien brought them up himself.

  7. Chris,
    It is like introducing any new science to the Vatican. For some reason our RCC believes they know about all the ethics even before the impact of the discovery is known. The real problem is that the Bishops believe that they alone have the authority to hear and teach what the Holy Spirit is saying. They seem to believe that She speaks only to them.

    Let's face it the Vatican is not credentialed in science, psychology or even medical ethics. Until they begin to listen to the discoveries and knowledge of the professionals who are credentialed, they will not continue to be overboard in society.

    Don't give up on therapy though, it well could work by allowing these men to get out of the authoritarian mind set and think for themselves. This is what they fear as a group. Change is very fearful for Bishop as they already have expensive life styles and feel a false sense of omnipotence. Good therapy for our Bishops is what could actually help. It would of course be the end of the authoritarian system---- just what this church needs.