Nevertheless, Mr. and Mrs. McLean of Edinburgh screamed at each other for half an hour, fighting hammer and tongs over whether or not Cardinal O’Brien had been hung out to dry by a coterie of gay priests because of his prominence in the Scottish battle to preserve traditional marriage.
One of the difficulties Edinburgh Catholics have in discussing the downfall of our former archbishop is that we don’t know what he did exactly. We know only that three active priests and one “former” priest told journalist Catherine Deveney that within a 33-year period, O’Brien made at least four “inappropriate approach[es]” to them. The youngest was 20, a seminarian, when the alleged impropriety occurred. The others were priests, adult men, when Father/Bishop/Cardinal O’Brien offended them.
The story broke on Feb. 23, 2013 and, like many other Edinburgh Catholics, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t get my mind around the idea of our big, hearty Irish cardinal making sexual passes at men.
I run with a Church-centric crowd that is well-seasoned with urban sophisticates, and none of us had an inkling that the cardinal was gay or unchaste. Gossips opined only that he was no intellectual and was overfond of whiskey. They were embarrassed by his habit of singing “Mud, Mud Glorious Mud” at parties, but they had to admit it was a crowd-pleaser. The cardinal sang it even at the Edinburgh Festival.
As an archbishop, O’Brien was a larger-than-life figure who spoke loudly on behalf of Christians suffering in the Middle East, of the right to life, and — as almost everyone forgot in the heat of the gay marriage debate — of homosexual teachers in Scotland’s Catholic schools. The media loved the cardinal; he was photogenic and made great copy.
So I tutted and fussed and wanted to know, like everyone else, who these anonymous priests were. My friends and I agreed that the cardinal was tactile, an arm-around-the-shoulders kind of guy. Deveney’s exact words were: “inappropriate approach”, “inappropriate contact,” and “unwanted behaviour.” Well, what did that mean to adult men? Were we talking boozy hugs here?
I became a combox warrior, trumpeting my belief in O’Brien’s innocence, citing my authority as an Edinburgh Catholic. More fool me. A week later, the cardinal confessed. That is, he admitted that “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” The cardinal would have retired on March 17, his 75th birthday; because of the scandal, he retired three weeks early.
The rest of the world saw the cardinal’s resignation in light of the coming papal conclave. But there was something going on in Scotland itself: the run-up to the imposition of same-sex marriage. The sudden outing of O’Brien as gay was great news for the Scottish government and other advocates of same-sex marriage.
“Homosexuality is not the issue,” wrote Deveney in a follow-up, “hypocrisy is.”
But it wasn’t hypocritical for O’Brien to teach Christian doctrine about homosexuality, homosexual acts and marriage. It was, after all, his job. Considering what he had to lose should his own homosexual sins come to light, it was actually very brave — or, at worse, just very dumb.
The timing of the accusations seemed rather convenient, which I reminded Mr. McLean this week, and he questioned my compassion for the whistle-blowers. There was a gay sub-culture attached to the Anglo-Catholicism of his youth, and at 22 he himself was the unwilling subject of a homosexual advance.
“Who is the author of the cardinal’s misfortune?” he roared.
“The cardinal,” I sulked.
“Thank you,” said Mark. “And don’t tell me you wouldn’t scream to the heavens if you were hit on by a priest, because I know you.”
“Ha,” I said. “If I thought it were important, I would scream at once. I wouldn’t wait until the worst possible moment for the Catholic laity, like the run-up to gay marriage. These priests were adults! Except, admittedly, the seminarian, who was only 20.”
And that’s the problem with defending the cardinal. There is a gay sub-culture among Scotland’s Catholic clergy, so it is not surprising, if disappointing, that a Scottish bishop might make homosexual advances to another cleric. But hitting on a seminarian — if he did hit on a seminarian — is yet another example of a powerful cleric scandalizing a vulnerable layman.
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad and the author of two books, Ceremony of Innocence and Seraphic Singles.)