The Blog

Keith O'Brien, Catholicism and Sexuality

I don't want to join the queue of ill-wishers wagging fingers at Keith O'Brien, the fallen leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland. The poor man is surely experiencing that kind of hell on earth that only Catholic guilt can generate.

I don't want to join the queue of ill-wishers wagging fingers at Keith O'Brien, the fallen leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland. The poor man is surely experiencing that kind of hell on earth that only Catholic guilt can generate. His whole life, in fact, must have been lived in varying degrees of torment. It's worth remembering that - quite apart from any religious abhorrence - homosexuality was illegal for the first 29 years or so of his life. It's impossible for most of us to imagine the levels of fear and anxiety.

He will, certainly, be judged for his abuse of the status he held, for the supplying of alcohol to lower inhibitions, and for putting young men vowed to celibacy in a grievous predicament. These are weighty charges, and arguably - because of the abuse of trust - even weightier than those levelled at that other alleged predator of the day, Chris Rennard. If the police are looking into Rennard's behaviour, it may be only a matter of time before O'Brien's door is firmly rapped upon. Yet despite the gravity of the allegations, the former cardinal deserves sympathy too. Unlike Rennard, who is straight and married, he was trapped in a public role that forbids any form of expression of desire, requited or otherwise.

The fact remains, however, that the Catholic Church faces a huge credibility deficit in the matter of sexuality. The saddest thing about the whole sorry story is that there is no indication that it is in any way confronting the huge ethical challenges it faces. Instead it seems to be using its traditional tactic of silencing awkward voices; willing them, in effect, into repression. One of the complainants, who has now left the clergy, has spoken to the Observer about the cold disapproval: 'I have felt very alone', he says, citing the 'cold disapproval of the Church hierarchy for daring to break ranks. I feel like if they could crush me, they would'.

Keith O'Brien's own statement, in fact, betrays much of the same fear of cold disapproval. It's deeply conflicted. On the one hand, you can sense the anguish of a real human being facing up to himself. Catholicism is centrally about confession. I do believe that O'Brien is doing his level best to confront his demons, at the personal level. But it's also, tragically, overshadowed, and compromised, by that characteristically Catholic instinct to repress. It feels harsh to say it, but the statement looks like a (self?) deception.

'In recent days', O'Brien writes, 'certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them.' The specific allegations were made to the papal nuncio on 9 February; they were made public by the Observer on the 22nd, at which point O'Brien began his vigorous denial. It seems highly implausible that noone in the hierarchy had thought to inform him of the details by that stage. But even if it's true that the only accusations he knew of at that point were non-specific ones, that's no defence at all. He was, by his own admission, fully aware that there had been specific incidents; he was in no position to deny the charge at the non-specific level.

The phrasing actually mirrors that used by Nick Clegg in the aftermath of the Rennard scandal: he similarly distinguished between the 'indirect and non-specific concerns' he knew of in 2007 and the 'direct' accusations that Channel 4 brought forward. Whoever advised O'Brien to take Clegg's handling of the Rennard affair as a model of political cunning might have a long look at him- or herself.

But O'Brien's disingenuousness isn't just borrowed political rhetoric. It reflects an institutionalised culture within the Catholic Church: everything to do with sexuality is swept under the carpet. In fact, the former cardinal was himself a victim of this. As recently as 2003, in the aftermath of his appointment as cardinal, he expressed an open mind on contraception, female priests and clerical marriage - only to be slapped down by the unforgiving hierarchy. I suspect that Keith O'Brien knows as well as anyone that the Catholic Church's stance on sexuality as a whole is destructive and unsustainable.

The new Pope, whoever he is, will have a huge rebuilding task in front of him. In the West at least, it's leaking public confidence by the gallon. One can only hope that the lucky conclave winner draws the right lessons from the O'Brien affair. The ethical battles humanity faces are economic, environmental and political; sexuality, on the other hand, needs to be understood and embraced, rather than battled against.