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Saturday 15 December 2018

Obituary: Cardinal Keith O'Brien

Irish-born head of the Catholic Church in Scotland who was forced to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct

DISGRACED: Cardinal O’Brien outside St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 2007. Photo: Reuters
DISGRACED: Cardinal O’Brien outside St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 2007. Photo: Reuters

CARDINAL Keith O'Brien, the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, who died on Monday aged 80, was a robust defender of the Catholic faith, particularly on sexual and bioethical matters, and a major player in the Scottish political scene who called for full Scottish independence; in 2013, however, he was forced to resign after being embroiled in a sexual scandal of his own making.

As archbishop and later cardinal, O'Brien - sometimes known as "the cardinal of controversy" - made an impact in three particular areas: the fight against world poverty; the moral questions surrounding abortion, embryo research and nuclear weapons; and the question of Scottish independence. In all of these he was happy to court media controversy.

He outraged World War II veterans in 1995 by using an ecumenical remembrance service at St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, to castigate the Allies for using nuclear weapons against Japan, calling it a war crime. He used his Ash Wednesday homily in 2002 to praise the "courage" of protesters against the Faslane nuclear submarine base.

While opening the Make Poverty History rally in Edinburgh in 2005, he denounced abject poverty as a "cloud of injustice that crucifies over one billion people", and in his 2006 Easter sermon he called for the Trident nuclear defence system to be scrapped and replaced "with projects that bring life to the poor".

O'Brien was also an outspoken critic of the British government on bioethical matters. His accusation, during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008, that doctors were engaging in "Frankenstein experiments", quickly became a news sound bite. It provoked an angry response from Lord Winston, the IVF pioneer, who accused O'Brien of making misleading statements that called into question the Catholic Church's probity.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council and the UK's most senior Catholic scientist, criticised O'Brien for using emotive language and ignoring the advances which, he said, could be gained from embryo research in treating diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Celebrating Mass at the House of Commons in 2008, O'Brien criticised politicians, especially Catholics, who had supported the legislation, accusing them of conniving in "attacks on human life with apparent lack of reproach from conscience". He agreed to a meeting between scientists and church leaders in an attempt to calm the row, but then added fuel to the flames by creating a YouTube video to voice his opposition to the legislation and sending the DVD to every MP.

O'Brien was not alone among senior British Catholic clergy in criticising the Act, but he was the most outspoken, both on this and other ethical issues. In a 2007 sermon marking 40 years since the Abortion Act, he compared the abortion rate in Scotland to "two Dunblane massacres a day" and told Catholic politicians who defended abortion that they should be barred from receiving Holy Communion.

Abortion and Trident fuelled O'Brien's support for Scottish independence, and he called for the Scottish Parliament to be able to rule on both issues. He had first made the case for independence in an interview with the Catholic Herald in 2006, when he endorsed the remarks of the late Cardinal Thomas Winning that Scots were increasingly open to full independence. However his claim to have seen, from his travels overseas, the benefits independence could bring to small countries brought a furious riposte from the then prime minister, Tony Blair. It seemed to many that O'Brien's approach was a sign of a deeper political shift by Scottish Catholics, hitherto solidly Labour, towards the resurgent Nationalists.

Related to O'Brien's attitude to independence was a measure of anti-English and anti-Establishment sentiment. Part of this was bound up with a sense that the Establishment was anti-Catholic.

Writing in the Catholic journal The Universe in January 2007, he cited the 1701 Act of Settlement, which forbade the monarch to marry a Roman Catholic, as an "obvious display of religious prejudice". (The disqualification arising from marriage to a Catholic was removed by the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.) As the leader of Catholic Church in Scotland, O'Brien often took the media to task for referring to the Archbishop of Westminster as the "leader of Britain's Roman Catholics", pointing out that the Scottish hierarchy was separate.

Despite his defence of Catholic moral teaching, O'Brien could be critical of the Vatican and was regarded as a liberal by many conservative Catholics.

After the Synod of Bishops in 1999, he accused a group of bishops and papal nominees of blocking discussion of sensitive topics such as clerical celibacy.

When he was created a cardinal in October 2003, O'Brien read out a specially scripted Profession of Faith, upholding the Church's teaching on matters such as contraception and priestly celibacy. The Vatican later denied suggestions that it had compelled him to make the statement or risk losing his red hat.

O'Brien's responsibilities took him well beyond his own archdiocese. From 1996 to 1999, he administered Argyll and the Isles diocese after the resignation of Bishop Roderick Wright, who caused a scandal by leaving the priesthood to marry. During that period, he was pastorally responsible for Catholics from the border at Berwick-upon-Tweed to the Isle of Lewis. He was also intensely interested in missions. Visits abroad took him to Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia, Darfur in Sudan, Bauchi in northern Nigeria, El Salvador, Guatemala and Chiapas in Mexico.

To tackle the decline in vocations to the priesthood (by 2005 there were only 18 seminarians training for the Scottish church, compared with almost 400 in 1970), in 2002, O'Brien announced a radical programme to introduce parishes run by single and married deacons, backed by a more active laity, with priests serving clusters of parishes.

In November 2012, because of his robust criticism of proposals to introduce gay marriage, the pressure group Stonewall awarded him the title "Bigot of the Year". Then, early the following year, just as Pope Benedict XVI was preparing to resign the papacy, allegations of sexual misconduct by O'Brien were published in The Observer.

The paper alleged that three priests and one former priest had been sexually molested by him in the 1980s. O'Brien began by denying the allegations, but two days later he resigned on grounds of "ill health". He had been effectively sacked by Rome.

The Vatican's reaction had been uncharacteristically swift, but the scandal refused to die down. O'Brien's accusers continued to demand justice and an acknowledgement of the truth of their claims that O'Brien had used his position as a seminary rector and a bishop to pressure young men into sex. In a short statement, O'Brien admitted that there had been times when his conduct had "fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal". A few days later it was announced that the Vatican had ordered O'Brien to leave Scotland.

Although he later returned to Britain to live, initially incognito, in a home provided by the Church in Northumberland, O'Brien's four accusers never had their day in court.

The Vatican did commission an investigation into the affair, the results of which were never published but were said to be "hot enough to burn the varnish" off the Pope's desk. As a result, O'Brien was stripped of all the rights of a cardinal, though allowed to use the title, a punishment unique in the annals of modern Catholicism.

The scandal rumbled on, metastasising into wider questions, such as why O'Brien had been promoted when people must have known of his sexual exploits; and why the Vatican appeared to be brushing the scandal under the carpet. Neither O'Brien nor the Catholic Church emerged with much credit and there was some incredulity that he was allowed to keep his red hat.

Keith Patrick O'Brien was born at Ballycastle in Co Antrim, on St Patrick's Day 1938. His father, Mark O'Brien, served for 22 years in the Royal Navy and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal after serving on convoys to Murmansk during World War II. He joined the civil service in 1949, which necessitated a family move to Scotland, initially to Dalmuir, on Clydeside, then Edinburgh, where Keith attended Holy Cross Academy.

He gained a BSc from Edinburgh University in 1959, but was only admitted to a seminary on his third attempt, being turned down initially because of a heart murmur.

After studying at St Andrew's College, Drygrange, in Roxburghshire, he was ordained a priest on April 3, 1965 by Archbishop Gordon Gray. He spent a year as assistant priest in Holy Cross, Edinburgh, and gained a teacher-training certificate in 1966.

Until 1971, he taught maths and science at St Columba's Secondary School in Cowdenbeath, also acting as school chaplain and an assistant priest in the local parish. From 1972 to 1978, he served in parishes at Kilsyth and then Bathgate. He was appointed spiritual director to St Andrew's College, Drygrange, from 1978 to 1980 and was rector of St Mary's College, the junior seminary at Blairs, Aberdeen, from 1980 to 1985.

Still not 50, in 1985 O'Brien was appointed Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, where his ebullient, outspoken personality soon made an impression and where he was widely liked by ordinary Catholics for whom he always had time and a kind word.

When Cardinal Winning, the Archbishop of Glasgow, died in 2001, O'Brien succeeded him as head of the Scottish bishops. He was created a cardinal in 2003.

After resigning as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, O'Brien did not take part in the conclave that elected Pope Francis in March 2013. He spent some time in Spain, at the villa of Sir Tom Farmer, the founder of Kwik Fit and a devout Catholic. Wishing to return to Scotland, he was told that he could not move into his retirement home in Belhaven, near Dunbar. It was announced that he would spend time in "prayer and penitence". "Am I to live in a monastery for the rest of my life?" he asked. Eventually, the Catholic Church bought him a property in Northumberland where, last month, he fell, breaking his collarbone and suffering a head injury.

While many in the Church could not forgive the fallen Cardinal, he retained the sympathy of many ordinary Catholics, who remembered numerous small acts of kindness from the years of his pastoral ministry.

© Telegraph

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