Choosing bishops

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.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

6 Responses to Choosing bishops

  1. I have been following the Cardinal O’Brien story. I have more questions than I would imagine could ever be known through the media. I would appreciate your comments.

    It seems to be that the incidences are of 30 years ago. It seems that there are no current complainants. How can it be that incidents of this length of time show him to be a failure and a hypocrit? On the contrary it seems to me that he has learned to cope with his issues and managed to get to 75 without failing.

    Is the problem that he is a Cardinal…had he remained a priest it wouldn’t be a reportable issue?

    Why is he personal failing 30 years ago mean that he can’t proclaim the Church’s position on same sex marriage etc. I am sure that had a married person committed adultery 30 years ago it doesn’t mean that today they must proclaim adultery as a good thing in order not to be a hypocrit. On the contrary having committed adultery a married person might be wiser to the harm it causes other people and in fact be more firm about fidelity in marriage. I can’t find fault with O’Brien in relation to this.

    In the end these dalliances are adult relationships. At worse (apart from breaking celibacy) it seems to fall into the difficult area of having an inappropriate relationship (or responding to the request for one) from one’s employment superior. Why couldn’t these situations been dealt with earlier?

    I wondered if there would have been so much fuss if O’Brien had been found to have had relationships with four parish secretaries (women that is). After all there are numerous clergy who have had relationships and are continuing in their ministry.

    • A lot of questions. I’ll seek to respond where I feel I can add value.

      It seems to be that the incidences are of 30 years ago. It seems that there are no current complainants. How can it be that incidents of this length of time show him to be a failure and a hypocrit? On the contrary it seems to me that he has learned to cope with his issues and managed to get to 75 without failing.

      Well, I certainly hope that’s the case. If he has had failings in the intervening 30 years, we will find out in the next few weeks.

      Is the problem that he is a Cardinal…had he remained a priest it wouldn’t be a reportable issue?

      Well, I think from a news perspective, and that’s really how this came to light, it’s probably more to do with the fact he’s a “celebrity”, and a lowly priest (if there is such a thing) who committed these sorts of indiscretions 30 years ago wouldn’t sell newspapers.

      Why is he personal failing 30 years ago mean that he can’t proclaim the Church’s position on same sex marriage etc. I am sure that had a married person committed adultery 30 years ago it doesn’t mean that today they must proclaim adultery as a good thing in order not to be a hypocrit. On the contrary having committed adultery a married person might be wiser to the harm it causes other people and in fact be more firm about fidelity in marriage. I can’t find fault with O’Brien in relation to this.

      I think the story of a reformed person can be a valuable one, but I think the fact the stories were exposed by others makes it a lot easier to charge someone with being a hypocrite. I’m not saying it’s fair, but I can understand the accusation.

      In the end these dalliances are adult relationships. At worse (apart from breaking celibacy) it seems to fall into the difficult area of having an inappropriate relationship (or responding to the request for one) from one’s employment superior. Why couldn’t these situations been dealt with earlier?

      I think the problem is like the one so often cited in encounters of this kind: Power. As you’ve said, there are still many facts we don’t know, but there seems to be a strong suggestion that he sought to use his seniority as a lever to get what he apparently wanted. In terms with why this took 30 years to come to light, that’s a very fair question. When he was made Archbishop of Edinburgh or made a cardinal, you’d think there would have been more scrutiny — either by the Vatican or by these men who were outraged that he was being promoted. I think one saving grace for the whistleblowers is that they apparently lodged their complaints before the Pope resigned, which means they — three priests and an ex-priest — weren’t going out of their way to disrupt the conclave. That’s what happened, but not by design.

      I wondered if there would have been so much fuss if O’Brien had been found to have had relationships with four parish secretaries (women that is). After all there are numerous clergy who have had relationships and are continuing in their ministry.

      Possibly not as much fuss, but I think any cardinal found to have engaged in illicit sexual conduct couldn’t argue with being scrutinised — whether internally by Church officials or in the media, as in this case.

      Not sure if my answers make any sense.

  2. Thanks Gavin. What seems to be certain is that each of us, including those in office in the Church, need to be firmly grounded in the spiritual habit of examination of conscience. Where one is in a position of representing the Church one needs to look at personal openness and full disclosure as part of that representation.

    I read this on NewAdvent. I found it helpful when dealing with these scandals.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithonthecouch/2013/03/and-the-gates-of-the-ny-times-shall-not-prevail-against-it-catholics-can-beat-the-press-3-easy-steps/

    In the final analysis…we simply aren’t Christian enough and we need to be. That is the only way forward.

    • You’re so right when it comes to the need for spiritual life, for those of us who have faith. And right again when it comes to those in leadership roles in the Church. If they are performing their functions as a bishop in teaching, governing and sanctifying, it’s important their personal conduct is beyond reproach.

  3. Just another wee note. I suppose it is easy to see the Cardinal O’Brien fiasco with the media in many ways. But one thing I feel with the secular media who represent the culture is their deep sadness at O’Brien’s failure. This presents as righteous anger and a certain mocking cynicism. But they, in no way less than you or I, are in their deepest selves confronted with mortality and the sense of God (to be responded to in some way).

    I copied the following from Word on Fire (Fr Ference on Fr Barron’s blog)

    “Deep down, if people are honest, I think that most folks want to believe in God and that He alone can satisfy. But, I think it’s hard to believe. A good celibate priest makes God more believable. The healthy celibate priest is a living witness of God’s eternal love and of the reality of Heaven – he holds the world to a higher standard and to higher expectations by his celibate love. People look at him and think, “He’s happy, and he doesn’t have sex. How is that possible?” The joyful celibate priest is a prophet, reminding the world that God is real and He alone can satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. He offers a living witness to counter the empty promises held out by the fallen world.”

    So in a way perhaps it is the reaction of disappointment and the modern version of the stoning of a false (apparently) prophet.

    We need to give them true prophetic signs, signs for a lost and despairing world. Never mind the cost.