Cardinal O’Brien – What’s the Real Issue?

Extraordinary news this weekend as Cardinal O’Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic priest in the United Kingdom, admitted “ there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”. The response from some parts of the media has been almost gleeful.

Cardinal Keith O'BrienCardinal Keith O’Brien, who was forced to resign by the pope last week, has made a dramatic admission that he was guilty of sexual misconduct throughout his career in the Roman Catholic church.

In a short but far-reaching statement issued late on Sunday, the 74-year-old stated that “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”.

The former archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and until recently the most senior Catholic in Britain, apologised and asked for forgiveness from those he had “offended” and from the entire church.

O’Brien’s much wider admissions are a significant rebuff to some senior figures in the Scottish church who had repeatedly downplayed the allegations disclosed in the Observer, calling them unsubstantiated, non-specific and anonymous.

The cardinal’s office warned the Observer it faced legal action after it first contacted him. In further disclosures this weekend, the Observer reported that one complainant had alleged: “He started fondling my body, kissing me and telling me how special I was to him and how much he loved me.”

In a fresh interview with the Observer, the former priest, who made his complaint to the nuncio in early February, said that after his disclosures he sensed “the cold disapproval of the church hierarchy for daring to break ranks. I feel [that] if they could crush me, they would.”

O’Brien’s resignation was remarkable in its speed; his apology is all but unprecedented in its frankness. Many sexual scandals or allegations of misconduct against individuals or the wider church have dragged on for years.

What to make of all this? A number of thoughts.

  1. There are cries of “hypocrisy” all over the internet this morning. We need to be very clear what hypocrisy is and isn’t. Hypocrisy is saying one thing in public and doing another in private at the same time. Hypocrisy is not doing one thing in private at one point, realising it was wrong and then in the future arguing publicly against the action you have performed.
    Of course this gets complicated, because what happens if someone has been sexually active in some form in the past, privately repents but never addresses his misdemeanour with those he abused? Pastorally this is a big deal – if you have a porn habit there are very few people to apologise to, but if you abused your position and “tried it on” with someone, you really do need to go back to that person and apologise. Of course, we don’t know if Keith O’Brien has or hasn’t done that, but the principle is correct – if I have wronged you I should go to you and apologise for that wronging.
    Want to get even more complicated? Sometimes people engage in consensual sin and then repent. Do they need to go back to the person they sinned with and say “You know what, what we did was wrong”? Well some people do and some don’t but either way we can recognise this is a different situation to a more abusive sexual encounter.
    If Keith O’Brien was publicly teaching one thing and privately practising another, then that’s hypocrisy. If on the other hand he sinned in the past, repented and then taught that such behaviour he had engaged in was sinful, that’s not hypocrisy, that’s grace.
  2. Speaking of hypocrisy, it’s very interesting the way that the media are conflating this case of adult sexual activity by serving Roman Catholic priests with the paedophilia scandals, as though the two were related. Whenever conservatives (incorrectly let’s be clear) try to conflate paedophilia and homosexuality the liberal commentariat jump on them with, well, gay abandon. So why is it acceptable for the editors of Radio 4’s Today programme to write a script that lumps Keith O’Brien’s actions and the paedophilia abuse together as one and the same problem?
  3. The problem for the wider church in all this (Roman Catholic, Anglican and the rest) is that events like this challenge us as to how we handle public exposure of our sexuality. It is undeniable that there are certain parts of the Church where simply being homosexual is a one-way route to a cul-de-saced career. This is a major issue in the conservative elements of the church, who have no problem in putting on a pedestal those who can act as poster-boys for a particular political agenda, but when it comes to actually supporting pastoral ministry in this area suddenly the money and support dries up.
    The liberal wing has absolutely no problem in this area, because those who have same-sex attraction and what to embrace it find a welcome home in many congregations. For conservatives it’s a bit more difficult. We have very few role-models for living chastely if one is predominantly homosexual, and far too often the “solution” proffered by some is to attempt sexual orientation change, as though “being straight” was somehow morally superior to “being gay”. In reality, sexual temptation and sin straddles every sector of the Kinsey Scale and all sections of society. And lest we forget, Jesus taught us that our basic brokenness in this area, as well as many others, is revealed not so much in what we do but simply what we think and feel.
    So what to do? Giles Fraser’s response on this morning’s Thought for the Day was to suggest that the solution is for the Churches to adopt modern morals and drop the notion that homosexual practice is sinful. Apparently the problem is that those with same-sex attraction repress their sexuality and if only we celebrated homosexual desire that would solve the problem. In reality the problem is not so much that the Church doesn’t embrace the modern sexual revolution (this is not a problem but something to be celebrated) but rather that the culture that exists in some places is to stymie the kind of openness about sexual attractions that would let people live more emotionally healthy lives.

Rosary on BibleIn some senses what we need to move on in this area is for the Churches to have a positive welcome for those who struggle in the area of same-sex attraction and not to treat them as pariahs. Unless we can provide such pastoral support and such an openness and honesty about our brokenness then we can never offer a safe-space for those struggling with this or other issues. That requires courage from the church – not the kind of “courage” which is simply an endorsement of sin and a collapse of moral standards but rather the courage to stand as broken men and women who rely on grace to move on day by day in the task of discipleship, dying to self and rising in Christ. It requires supporting and funding such ministry, not pushing it to the margins and avoiding issues that are “controversial” in the appointments process.

If the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are serious about wanting to help those like Keith O’Brien bring congruence between their faith and their sexual desires, then they need to reach into their pockets to do so. Until that happens, we will continue to lack the public pastoral and theological frameworks to back-up all our well-meaning conservative statements as to what Christian discipleship should look like. If anything, Keith O’Brien’s experience should be seen not just as a warning to the Church hierarchy as to what happens when you don’t provide the structures to back up the sound-bites but also an opportunity to finally address this issue properly from a conservative position.

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