An unnamed former priest who was one of the four who formally accused Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien of sexual harassment has told the Observer, which broke the news, that he’s upset by what has happened since. Excerpt:
“The vacuum the church has created has allowed whimsy and speculation to distort the truth,” the priest said. “And the only support I have been offered is a cursory email with a couple of telephone numbers of counsellors hundreds of miles away from me. Anyway, I don’t need counselling about Keith O’Brien’s unwanted behaviour to me as a young man. But I may need counselling about the trauma of speaking truth to power.”
The former cleric says he feels that he, rather than the cardinal, has been the subject of scrutiny. “I have felt very alone and there is a tendency to become reclusive when people are trying to hunt you down.”
He said he felt particularly angered by demands that the identity of the four complainants be revealed: “To those who want to know my name I would say, what does that change? And what do you think I have done wrong?”
He said that when the four came forward to the church, they were asked to make sworn signed statements to Mennini. But they were also warned that if their complaints became public knowledge, they would cause “immense further damage to the church”. The church, he says, failed to act quickly and appropriately, adding that he fears the matter was in danger of being swept under the carpet.
“For me, this is about integrity. I thought it was best to let the men and women who put their hard-earned cash in the plate every Sunday know what has been happening. If you pay into something you have a right, but also a duty, to know what you are paying for.”
OK, I get that — up to a point. If you have truly been abused or sexually harassed by a Church figure, you are a fool to depend on the Church to deal justly and responsibly with the situation. You should first go to the secular authorities, and then, if necessary, to the court and to the media. Experience shows that the Church cannot be trusted to police itself in these matters. I don’t blame these four for leaking their charges to the media.
But this story made me feel some sympathy for Cardinal O’Brien, who resigned after news of the accusations broke. He has been anonymously accused of misdeeds that may or may not be criminal — we don’t know the specifics of what O’Brien is supposed to have done — but which are very serious and compromising moral failings. If these men were victims of sex crimes, then I certainly understand the need to keep their identities hidden. But this particular man, who says he does not feel the need for counseling. And that’s easy to understand. From last week’s Observer story, this is what O’Brien supposedly did to him back in the 1980s, when he was a seminarian:
The Observer understands that the statement claims O’Brien made an inappropriate approach after night prayers.
The seminarian says he was too frightened to report the incident, but says his personality changed afterwards, and his teachers regularly noted that he seemed depressed.
It seems to me that, absent lingering serious trauma, if this man is concerned about “integrity,” that he should come forward and put his name to this accusation against Cardinal O’Brien — and if he won’t do that, then he should stop talking to the media about the matter. Please note the condition I’ve laid down; I do not believe victims of sexual trauma should feel compelled to reveal their names. But as far as we know, this man suffered nothing worse than a seminary rector making a pass at him. That would be an understandably troubling thing for a seminarian, certainly, and one could understand why he would be depressed to think that he was in spiritual subordination to such a man. But this happened three decades ago, and the alleged victim isn’t even a priest any longer. When he asks what it would matter if his identity were known, it would matter because it would give credibility to the accusation. The people accusing O’Brien wouldn’t be abstractions, at least not in his lone case, but would be real people who are courageous enough to stand up and tell the painful, controversial truth, if indeed that’s what this man and his confrères in the clergy are doing here.
As it stands, Cardinal O’Brien is having his character destroyed in the media by anonymous accusers. If it could be done without putting a victim of serious sexual trauma at risk, then it should be done, as a matter of integrity. It is not clear to me what this man has to lose by going public with his name (versus the other men, who remain priests in active service). It would give the public the opportunity to judge the veracity of his claim, or at least take the measure of his own integrity. On the other hand, I can understand wanting to remain silent and not draw press attention to oneself in this matter — in which case, then, the victim should quit speaking to the Observer. Continuing to take shots at the cardinal and the Church from behind the cloak of anonymity is not admirable.
What a shattering thing for the Catholic Church in the UK. O’Brien was a leading critic of same-sex marriage and gay rights. This doesn’t mean the teaching he advocated was wrong. It does mean that he’s made it a laughingstock. Here’s Damian Thompson just now in the Telegraph:
I’m deeply unimpressed by Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s vague and guarded admission that “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”. Does he really think he can leave it at that? After raging against gay marriage with a ferocity that was – I suspect – intended to make the English bishops look wimpish and therefore butter up the Vatican?
Scottish Catholics in particular have the right to ask: What the hell do you mean by “sexual conduct”?
You’ve been exposed as a hypocrite, Keith Patrick O’Brien. Possibly a liar as well. Don’t kid yourself that this evasive statement will bring matters to a close.
UPDATE.2: I’m going to post the updated info in a separate post, because the story has now been much advanced by the cardinal’s omission. Let’s take the discussion into the new post, not adding on to this one. Thanks.