John McLellan: O'Brien used confession to silence priests he abused

The passing of Cardinal Keith O'Brien marks the end of one of the saddest chapters in Edinburgh's recent civic history, the fall from grace of someone who could have been such a force for good beyond his church but instead became a symbol of breathtaking hypocrisy.

Thursday, 22nd March 2018, 6:00 am
O'Brien made priests he abused hear his confession to silence them (Picture: Donald Macleod)

I got to know him reasonably well (or so I thought) in my first stint as Evening News editor and before he became Cardinal. We met in 1997 to discuss a homelessness campaign and an ecumenical approach to bring together the various charities working with rough-sleepers and I kept up the contact, regularly attending his New Year reception in Greenhill, then one of the highlights of the local civic calendar, and once he proudly showed my wife and I round his private chapel.

Before lunch one day, he hooted with laughter at my face when he stood up as if to say grace in the middle of a busy restaurant and instead took off his jacket. His was a very different approach to the more austere Cardinal Thomas Winning.

At the time we published columns by the popular Currie parish priest Steve Gilhooley, who was packing them in on a Sunday long before the influx of eastern Europeans boosted congregations. But Gilhooley’s particular brand of liberation theology, down-to-earth humour and football banter meant he was a target for traditionalists and so too was O’Brien for tolerating his work and that of Radio Forth’s late night DJ, Father Andy Monaghan.

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Spearheaded by a small group called Catholic Truth, we received a litany of complaints about him which also reached the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who did not share O’Brien’s liberal attitude.

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Eventually it was made clear his advancement would require toeing a harder line and so he transformed from liberal to reactionary and was elevated to Cardinal in 2003. He then participated in the election of John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XIV, Cardinal Ratzinger.

His pronouncements on homosexuality in particular became increasingly extreme, culminating in a 2012 article describing same-sex partnerships as “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved” for which he was named as “Bigot of the Year” at the Stonewall campaign’s annual awards.

By that time I was working for Ruth Davidson, who was attending the event to receive the Politician of the Year award, and we discussed the dangers of being too closely associated with such blunt criticism of the leader of Scotland’s Catholics and, to boos, she said that calling people bigots was not helpful.

I still think she was right because he was not so much bigoted as utterly two-faced, having made sexual advances on a number of junior clergy who on finding out his abuse was not isolated could no longer tolerate his aggressively anti-gay views when they knew him to be an abusive homosexual himself, of his abuse of power and, just as bad for priests, of his abuse of the sacrament of penance.

The Church hierarchy was stunned to learn he had forced some of the priests to hear his confession in which he admitted abusing them. It was a clerical means to gag the priests for ever with the absolute secrecy of the confessional. Sexual relationships with priests were bad enough, but it as another thing entirely for such a senior cleric to violate the sanctity of rites at the heart of its doctrine. It was with some understatement that Archbishop Leo Cushley said he “may have divided opinion” but now he has gone. Archbishop Cushley was right to ask that “solace be given to those whom he offended, hurt and let down”. 

The avuncular, welcoming and warm Keith O’Brien is sadly missed in Edinburgh, but the conflicted, predatory and hypocritical Keith O’Brien was known only to the priests he abused.

On-street still has advantages over online

Fear of the impact of tram roadworks on Leith Walk has not put off estate agent-solicitors Aberdein Considine from moving offices from the West End to what was the old STV Gateway studio on Elm Row. Despite more house-selling switching to online firms like Purple Bricks, AC is already seeing a steady flow of casual enquiries off the street. That the new office offers financial services and RBS has closed its nearby Blenheim Place branch might have something to do with it.

The extraordinary story of Edinburgh’s tram troubles

Former transport minister Stewart Stevenson’s evidence to the tram enquiry was refreshingly honest and confirmed what has been known all along, that the Scottish Government deliberately withdrew Transport Scotland from the project specifically to avoid being tainted by problems it knew were coming.

In other words, the Scottish Government gave the council enough rope to hang itself, £500m worth of publicly funded rope to be more precise.

It seems an extraordinary way to go about business, to hand over such a large amount of tax-payers’ money but then withdraw the expertise which might have helped deliver the project earlier and cheaper.