Tackling power abuse in the Church

Irish Catholic [Dublin, Ireland]

August 26, 2021

By Jason Osborne

Brian Devlin’s experience of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s abuse of power is prompting his calls for reform and renewal in the Church, writes Jason Osborne

Faithful Catholics today are weary and browbeaten following the revelations in recent years of the deep rot of abuse that took place at the heart of parishes and dioceses around the world. Compounding and exacerbating these cases were the widespread efforts to cover up the abuse, as Church officials sought to save face and avoid scandal in a number of instances.


No one is more frustrated with the abuses or the attempted cover-ups than those who endured them, though, and Brian Devlin is one such man. Author of a new book, Cardinal Sin: Challenging power abuse in the Catholic Church, Mr Devlin is seeking to take to task the institutional structures in the Church that allowed such abuses to be carried out – and power is at the centre of it all, he understands.

Mr Devlin’s own experience of abuse came about through his proximity to the late-Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who later admitted to serial sexual misconduct following intense scrutiny. Cardinal O’Brien’s charisma and good humour, coupled with a local link between the two, quickly saw a friendship form upon Mr Devlin’s entry of St Andrew’s College, Drygrange seminary near Edinburgh.

“Keith O’Brien had a different role [to the other priests at the seminary], he was the college spiritual director,” Mr Devlin tells The Irish Catholic, continuing, “His role was to make a very intimate spiritual journey with seminarians to help them discern whether or not they had a vocation to the priesthood. He was extraordinarily charismatic, he was very good humoured, very positive.”

Such access to the seminarians, and such intensity of relationship, provided a man of a predatory bent with all of the access he needed to those in his vicinity. Mr Devlin details in his book the disturbing progression of their relationship, which culminated in an incident in which Cardinal O’Brien demonstrated “very, very clearly his power over me”.

“He didn’t rape me, and he didn’t genitally abuse me or anything like that, but what he did do was demonstrate very, very clearly his power over me, and that’s why the book is subtitled Challenging power abuse in the Catholic Church,” Mr Devlin explains.

The event marked a sudden and swift turning point in Mr Devlin’s trajectory, and this was solidified when, following Mr Devlin’s ordination to the priesthood, then-Fr O’Brien was announced as the upcoming Archbishop of Edinburgh archdiocese.

“After about a year, I left the priesthood because I knew that there was no way that I could be a priest with him as my bishop, because the relationship that a bishop has with a priest is probably one of the most intense relationships you can have,” Mr Devlin says.

A predator

“He controls every aspect of your life, and I wasn’t prepared to put myself in that position. I certainly didn’t feel capable of even thinking about that. I had made a vow to be obedient to Cardinal Gray, but they had a successor who, it’s now become clear, was a predator, a sexual predator whose predation included sexually inappropriate behaviour towards his priests and in my case, a seminarian.”

Leaving the priesthood, it was only years later, through Facebook, that Mr Devlin connected with three others who had similarly inappropriate reports concerning Cardinal O’Brien. Banding together, their experiences as they tried to see him brought to justice would inform Mr Devlin’s future attitudes towards the Church’s accountability structures.

“What happened next was, we told the nuncio individually what had happened to us. The nuncio was a guy called Archbishop Antonio Mennini, in London. He had been forewarned by a go-between that this was happening. So, four priests make very strong accusations against a cardinal in Scotland, and we get feedback from the go-between that the nuncio had long suspected there was something going on in our diocese,” Mr Devlin says, continuing incredulously, “They were able to tolerate a degree of sexual predation by a cardinal and just let it go by.”

“So we wrote, thinking there would immediately be a response, but when you read about these things and you talk to people, very often what happens is an abused person, a victim, or their victims’ advocate, says this is what’s happened and you’re met with a wall of silence, and that’s what happened.

“Nothing happened. So that in itself was an action. Choosing not to do something is an action. It’s a very abusive, powerful action, really. So we pressed and we pressed and said if you don’t do something, we will go public on this. And nothing happened.”


Meeting silence and inaction on the part of the relevant Church authorities, Mr Devlin and his counterparts were further stymied when they saw Cardinal O’Brien on TV around the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, “his usual, jocular self”.

“A few days later, there he was, in the news, being interviewed, explaining what the process was, on the TV that is, in a conclave. He showed one of the voting cards that cardinals use, and he was his usual jocular self. Then we pressed very, very strongly that this was ridiculous, to say the least.”

Dissatisfied by the official Vatican response, they decided to go public with their story, The Observer taking them up on it and making it an international talking point. Cardinal O’Brien initially contested the accusations, but held his hands up a short time later, following a TV appearance by Mr Devlin in which he described what the reaction to their story had been like, as well as his experience as a “Church whistleblower”.

“A new bishop was appointed, Archbishop Leo Cushley, and we asked for a meeting with him. He told us that as far as the Holy See was concerned, that’s it, it’s done with, it’s over now, and we said, ‘No, it isn’t’. We had no way of knowing the degree of predation that went on with O’Brien, we have no way of knowing whether O’Brien had been open to being blackmailed, we had no way of knowing whether or not there was any financial irregularity going on. We had no way of knowing whether people had been appointed into posts because they’d had inappropriate relationships with O’Brien, and this all had to be investigated, and we’d had no apology,” Mr Devlin says.

While the official responses were consistently found wanting, that’s not to say that they all were – Mr Devlin’s next point of contact was then-Bishop Charles Scicluna, with whom Mr Devlin was deeply impressed.

“A few months later, it was announced that there would be an investigation by an amazing bishop called Bishop Charles Scicluna. Scicluna did come. He spent two and a half days, I think, in Scotland. One day he spent with me and he came to visit me in my house, and we talked through my story. I think probably about a year later or so it was announced that a decision had been made to essentially remove all of O’Brien’s faculties as a cardinal. So, he would retain the title, he could keep his red hat, but he could only wear it in the house. He was a cardinal literally in name only. He couldn’t minister or anything.”

Seeing a measure of justice doled out to Cardinal O’Brien, and having walked the trying path himself and his colleagues did, Mr Devlin’s attention has turned now to reform – reform of the structures that allow power to corrupt and thwart justice. His experiences have given him plenty of material to reflect upon.

“I want to convey that I strongly do not believe that the Vatican would have had the ability to act as it’s had towards [Theodore] McCarrick and other leading prelates, if we hadn’t done what we did with O’Brien. They didn’t have a process – we kept on being told, ‘Sorry, only the Pope can deal with a cardinal,’ which is totally unjust.


“It’s unjust to the cardinal, because he’s got allegations against him and he’s got nowhere to go. And it’s certainly unjust to the people who are making the allegations. So I think that what we did with O’Brien, yes, in terms of what happened to him, that was momentous, but how it’s changed the Church – it’s changed the Church forever, because there is no hiding place no matter how important you are in the Church, the Church hierarchy, there’s no hiding place for people who behave dishonourably or immorally.”

While the Church has changed, there’s always more to be done. As Mr Devlin says in his book, organisations go wrong because “organisations are run by humans. And humans are flawed”. However, he’s been impressed by the focus Pope Francis has brought to the table during his tenure.

“I think that Francis has made the impact, but I think really what’s going on here is there’s a sense of impatience in the Church by the laity, who are saying that they’re fed up, that they are disgusted with the behaviour of priests who have been committing abuse.

“They are appalled at the behaviour of bishops who have moved those priests from parish to parish, to allow them to spread and contaminate more and more parishes. I think that what we’re seeing is the Holy Spirit at work. We have a Pope who sees this, who understands this, who’s opposed, in his essence, to clericalism. We have a laity who are absolutely astounded by what’s happened in their Church, and these are people who’ve given their lives, have given a huge amount of their money to the Church, and they see all that squandered now.”

Mr Devlin has come to believe a fundamental restructuring, or re-understanding at least, of the Church is the only way to prevent abuses from being perpetrated and covered up again going forward, explaining the Church needs to become more a “Venn diagram” than its current “pyramid” structure.

“One thing that I would like to convey is that, we need a new model as Archbishop [Dermot] Farrell is saying. If you were to look at the model of the Church just now, it’s a triangle, or a pyramid. You’ve got the Pope at the top, then all the layers of cardinals and archbishops, bishops, priests, and right down at the bottom are the billion or so laity. I think a better model, actually, is a Venn diagram. So you have on one side the important role that bishops and cardinals and the Pope has. And then on the other side you have the laity, and in a Venn diagram, when they cross over in the middle, that’s where the governance of the Church is. It’s a participatory model. It does the opposite of what’s happening just now. It’s transparent, it’s built on, there’s a theological phrase, sensus fidelium, it’s ‘the sense of the people’.”

Another particularly harmful element present in the Church, he says, is the current widespread understanding of scandal. He believes his very writing of the book may be seen as scandalous, but he’s keen to emphasise that it was Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviour that was scandalous – not their revealing of it.


“The Church has a very specific understanding of ‘scandal’. It’s a theological understanding, which means that if you scandalise the people of God, then you risk them losing their faith. So in our situation, looking back on it, people tried to say those four men are scandalising the people of God, but the scandal wasn’t what we did. The scandal was what O’Brien did. I think that the Church needs to totally deconstruct this notion of scandal. It’s a mindset that bishops have, and it’s a mindset that’s right there in the Vatican, that we must not scandalise. So my book will be seen by some people as scandalising people – it’s not, it’s telling the truth. I think that that can happen immediately,” Mr Devlin says.

Taking him two or three drafts to come to the book as it currently stands, Mr Devlin says that he was shocked to hear from a reader of an early draft that it seemed as though he hated the Catholic Church, such was the anger he was expressing as he tried to process the hurt he had experienced.

“That was like a slap in the face to me, because I don’t hate the Church…I love the Catholic Church, that’s my home.”

While his formal relationship with the Catholic Church is not as close as it once was, he explains to me, he wrote the book “as an act of love for the Church”, understanding that it’s only when the disempowered voices are heard and the requisite changes are made that it’ll be the Church it was created to be.

Cardinal Sin: Challenging power abuse in the Church by Brian Devlin is published by Columba Books.