Make the Catholic Church Pay for Its Shameful Silence

By Kevin McKenna
The Guardian
March 30, 2013

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who has been accused of 'groping' a priest in 2003.

This denial of sex abuse claims is disgraceful. The faithful must withhold their financial support

The campaign by some in the Catholic church to limit the damage following Cardinal Keith O'Brien's downfall was sadly inevitable. What could not have been foreseen, though, was how nasty and ham-fisted it would turn out to be. Catherine Deveney's revelations in the Observer last month that three Scottish priests and a former priest had complained to the Vatican of being victims of inappropriate conduct by O'Brien exposed what many of us had long feared: that the leadership of the church in Scotland is rotten to the core and no longer fit for purpose.

The response by what passes for the church authorities since Deveney's game-changing story only lends credence to this assertion. No pastoral outreach to these four men, each of whom believes they have a God-given vocation to serve His church, has been forthcoming. Instead, they have been subjected to a whispering campaign of innuendo and half-baked supposition. Incredibly, several influential Catholics, who really ought to have known better, have made shrill calls for the priests to "out" themselves. Last week it was suggested that they were motivated by little more than personal malice against O'Brien and that their claims amounted to a conspiracy to bring him down.

Nowhere has there been an acknowledgment of what would have happened had these four men not come forward: that O'Brien would have joined his 115 brother cardinals in Rome for the conclave to elect a new pope and that, as such, he would have been a not unreasonable each-way bet for the ultimate elevation. This despite the fact that Vatican authorities were by then aware of at least five complaints made against him. Informed sources to whom I've spoken recently have stated that O'Brien had been viewed as a viable compromise candidate during the conclave which elected Benedict XVI in 2005.

Several other revelations have begun to seep out in the wake of O'Brien's forced defenestration. Here is a small selection of some of the more eye-watering: that the Cardinal "groped" a priest on the day in 2003 when he received his red hat; that he has had more than one long-term gay physical relationship; that at least two junior seminaries in Scotland had been run according to the customs and practices of a Turkish brothel; that at least 20 complaints of sexual impropriety had been made to the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland in modern times but which they chose merely to hand over to the police. We do not know if any resultant prosecutions occurred.

Taken along with the historic and brutish examples of sex abuse in the Scottish Catholic church in the 1990s and beyond, it points to a toxic organisation which has lost the right to have an ounce of influence on the nation's affairs. In this all the winter solstices of the secular humanist movement have come at once. In any other national organisation the nature and volume of such claims and allegations would have led to an immediate and wide-ranging public and independent inquiry. Dawn raids and arrests would have followed. In the never-never land currently occupied by the Catholic hierarchy there is, instead, continued silence and denial.

In a piece written by Catherine Deveney in last week's Observer, the four priests who provided the source material for her original story rejected all claims that they were motivated by anything other than a desire for justice, a concept now alien to the hierarchy and its apologists. One of her priests, Lenny, said that he had yet to receive a formal response from the nuncio. He did not know even if there would be an inquiry. "When contacted by the Observer," wrote Deveney, "the nunciature refused to confirm whether more priests had come forward since the original article. A spokesman also refused to comment on an inquiry. Not even on the process? 'Not even on whether it exists.'"

So there we have it. The acting head of the Catholic church in Scotland, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, has referred all questions about this crisis to the Papal Nuncio. So too has the previously verbally incontinent Catholic media office. And his response to the question of an inquiry into the biggest crisis to hit the Catholic church since the Reformation is not even to confirm if one exists. It would appear that Rome has had more in common with the old Soviet politburo than any of us ever suspected after all.

What has been revealed about the customs, practices and ethics of the Scottish Catholic church stretching back half a century or so amounts to a gross and abject betrayal of every single Catholic who ever put their faith in its wretched leadership. It is also a betrayal of the nation's trust and that of our fellow Christians in the reformed traditions. For, despite the gloating of the barren and culturally bereft secularists, this country needs a spiritual antidote to the false gods of consumerism, instant gratification and nihilism which underpin what passes for society in this country. Until the church properly drains this swamp, it must remain silent at a time when its voice against poverty and inequality is needed most.

Traditionally, the people who fill the pews are denied any say in the church's governance. This is an organisation, after all, which receives its spiritual authority from God, through his saviour Jesus, alone. There is, though, a way in which the faithful can act if their spiritual leaders continue to abuse their trust. All the local parish groups whose unpaid fundraising keeps the lights on might consider setting up Escrow accounts. In this way we can withhold our financial support until such time as the church begins to formulate a proper response to the moral catastrophe that is engulfing it.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II with the words: "The council now beginning rises in the church like the daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light." Some have suggested that we may now need a Vatican III.

I fear, though, that we have moved way beyond that now and that what may be required is a Reformation II.


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