With Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the former archbishop of Edinburgh-St Andrews, today admitting that he didn’t live up to the standards expected of a priest, let alone a bishop or a cardinal. As you no doubt read or heard last week, three priests and a former priests accused Cardinal O’Brien of unwanted attention about 30 years ago. Cardinal O’Brien, as the accusations surfaced, initially denied them, but decided it was best for him to tender his resignation in order to avoid the story dominating the conclave. The story is still dominating the news at the moment, but the story should die off within a couple of days — but who knows what might replace it. I’m hoping the scandals are drying up.
One of the questions that has occupied my mind since the news of the accusations broke, and even more so since Cardinal O’Brien’s admission, is “how was he made a bishop, and then cardinal, in the first place?” The system of appointing bishops is a robust one, though many questions have been asked in recent years about a less-than-robust system that was in place in the early years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate that led to some head-scratching appointments. Cardinal O’Brien’s dates of promotion would fit into that time frame.
I hope, and I truly believe, that the system would now include very thorough investigations to ensure that possible bishops have no skeletons in their closet around issues of sexual impropriety. If the Church hasn’t learnt its lessons on this score yet, I fear they never will.
And it’s certainly an issue that will be front and centre in the conclave, with every cardinal’s history of dealing with sexual abuse being combed over by media around the world — and rightly so. If the Church is going to restore its reputation from the great scourge that the abuse crisis has created in the past decade or two, the new Pope will have to be someone who has at the very least a clean slate, but preferably a history of proactive work to stand down priests who had credible accusations, to ensure victims received appropriate support from the Church and to do everything possible to protect children.