Belfast Telegraph

Why Pope's 'cordial' condolences on the death of disgraced cardinal tells you everything you need to know about the Church's attitude to abuse victims

Francis' sympathy telegram sent to Keith O'Brien's successor shows hierarchy's desire to 'move on', but no comprehension of the damage that it continues to wreak, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who died this week at the age of 80
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who died this week at the age of 80
Pope Francis

In the Catholic Church, only the Pope has the power to discipline a cardinal. In the case of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, former head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, matters were - deliberately, strategically - never allowed to get to that stage.

He was permitted instead to step back from his public duties in 2013 after allegations of sexual impropriety involving young priests. He admitted in vague terms that his "conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal", but without giving the victims of his predatory sexual aggressiveness the decency of a full admission of guilt.

But would Britain's most senior Catholic have been pushed had he not agreed to jump back then?

That is something we'll never know, but events since Keith O'Brien's death on Monday, two days after his 80th birthday, hardly inspire confidence in the Catholic Church's readiness to do the decent thing or even recognise the right thing to do when it's staring them in the face.

That's obvious from Pope Francis' message of condolence to O'Brien's successor in the St Andrews and Edinburgh Diocese, which declared himself "saddened to learn of the death of His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien", adding: "I offer heartfelt condolences to you, his family and all who mourn his passing."

The Pope's expression of sympathy will, no doubt, be defended as ceremonial politeness from an institution which lives by protocol.

Such excuses, though, merely confirm that, decades after first being rocked by revelations of abuse and official cover-ups, the Church still does not get what all the fuss is about.

Sign In

Margaret McGuckin, of the group Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA), made the most telling intervention when she said: "This doesn't even surprise me."

Of all the responses, that is the one which should shame the Catholic Church most of all. Those who suffered at its hands may still be capable of shock at the callousness which is meted out to them, but they no longer expect anything better.

The central failing of the Catholic Church is that it continues to regard abuse by priests as a historic issue, one which has been done and dealt with by the hierarchy, whereas for survivors and their families it's an ongoing, ever-present reality.

The Church wants to "move on", in the current therapeutic jargon, while doing nothing to make that possible by properly acknowledging, or making amends for, the damage it continues to wreak.

The apostolic blessing bestowed by Pope Francis on Keith O'Brien's death is a standard enough form of address between the Pope and faithful Catholics; but why did the message of condolence make a point of saying that it was being "cordially" imparted by his holiness?

Cordial has two definitions, according to the dictionary - "warm and friendly", or "strongly felt". Whichever meaning was meant - and it may have been both - it seems particularly insensitive to victims of clerical abuse to go above and beyond the call of duty in this way when offering sympathy on the death of a man whose personal conduct had been so reprehensible that the findings of a secret report by the Vatican were, in words quoted by Catholic newspaper The Tablet, "hot enough to burn the varnish" off the Pope's desk.

This tells victims that the Church still sees errant priests as "one of us", entitled to a certain respect as a result.

In the past, wayward priests have been "punished" with regimes of penance and prayer, or seen their alleged wrongdoings handled through the form of a so-called 'apostolic visitation', rather than an exhaustive probe by a properly constituted, independent investigation.

When it came to O'Brien, the person charged with finding out the truth about the cardinal's behaviour was none other than his successor as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

That the subsequent report was never published makes a mockery of any claim by the Church to be taking victims seriously. If the Pope is the only person in the whole world authorised to censure a cardinal, it makes the words which he chooses to use all the more momentous. Any hint of equivocation is fatal to re-establishing trust.

Forgiveness is a central tenet of the Christian doctrine and that can make for some uncomfortable choices, but forgiveness should not mean ignoring what the individual in need of it has done.

In not even mentioning the cardinal's accusers, the Pope's message treats Keith O'Brien as just another priest who has, as Christians would see it, been called home to God. O'Brien was many things, but just another cleric is not one of them.

To ignore his wrongdoings when responding officially to his death is to treat them as minor details, rather than defining moments of his time on earth.

Some might argue that the offences of which he was accused were not at the more extreme end of the scale and, therefore, could be more easily forgiven.

They've even been described in some quarters as drunken fumblings from a man so damaged by internal psychological torment that he could rail publicly against the "moral degradation" of homosexuality while repeatedly forcing younger priests into sexual situations.

That is to misunderstand the nature of sexual abuse and the abuse of power which allows it to continue unchecked for decades. It's not for us to decide whether O'Brien was "not as bad" as some other priests.

What matters is the feelings of victims, not perpetrators, and they have been repeatedly let down by a Catholic Church which covered up their crimes for decades and then compounded the offence by keeping secret the subsequent reports into this culture of secrecy.

The Pope has added another layer of insult to that litany of injury. He has rendered victims invisible again, making it all the more urgent to see how these unresolved hurts can find redress during this summer's Papal visit to Ireland.

It's unthinkable Pope Francis will not face the issue when he speaks and this most personally charming and approachable of men will, no doubt, make all the right, soothing noises.

But what faith can there be in the sincerity of the sentiments behind them when the Catholic Church continually reverts to sickening fraternal solidarity?

This summer's visit will not include any time in Northern Ireland, it was announced this week, but Margaret McGuckin of SAVIA has already indicated that she will make the trip south to make sure that the voices of victims are heard.

Their determination to be heard will rightly be re-energised by this week's developments.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph