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Cardinal O’Brien: victim, villain or both?

2013 March 7

For a moment I felt sorry for Keith Patrick O’Brien. Here was a classic tragedy: a big man brought low by a single fault. After a life of ambitious service he had been undone by one character flaw and his fall from grace had been dramatic and swift.

But what, in that classic Shakespearean formula, was Cardinal O’Brien’s flaw?  Was it, from his own perspective, his homosexual inclinations or his weakness in acting on them?  Or was it, as his critics suggested, the spectacular hypocrisy of a man who was so vitriolic in his public denunciations of homosexuality turning out to have such closet tendencies?

Neither of those can be correct. The crime of the ex-Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh cannot have been being gay for, except to those who impose moral intent upon nature, being gay is not a sin. But there is a whole gradation of states between a sexual tendency and the rank hypocrisy of a cleric who proclaims a moral blueprint for how people should conduct their lives and then does not adhere to it himself.

Between homosexuality and hypocrisy lie cognitive dissonance, psychological denial, self-delusion, moral superiority, abuse of authority, institutional secrecy, wilful cover-up, unrighteous indignation and plain lying.  Research from the US Journal of Personality and Social Psychology recently offered evidence for what many have long suspected: that many of those most-vituperative in speaking out against gays have unconscious or repressed tendencies to homosexual attraction themselves.

Freud called this “reaction formation” – individuals inwardly struggling to stifle feelings they regard as unacceptable who then project their inward terror out on others. Suppressed homosexual urges then turn to homophobia in a form of projected self-loathing. It may explain the virulence of the bluster and bombast of Cardinal O’Brien’s public hostile to homosexuality as “morally disordered”, a “grotesque subversion” and evidence of the “degeneration of society into immorality”. But it means Cardinal O’Brien is also a victim and that, as one commentator put it, the sense of sexual sinfulness the Church has forced on him was itself an abuse.

There is more to this than being trapped in a cycle of abuse. There is an inequality of power between a spiritual director and a seminarian, or between a bishop and a priest, which adds a different abusive element to the reports that the cardinal attempted to touch, kiss or have sex with people in his charge.
And there was a fundamental dishonesty about his initial reaction to the accusations, announcing he would fight them and threatening The Observer, which broke the story, with legal action. “Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them,” he said in his most recent confession. But that is deeply dishonest. He knew well what he had done. And the complainants were not anonymous; they had sent sworn and signed statements to the papal nuncio.

The interview given by one of the accusers laid bare the extent to which he had been devastatingly and deeply damaged for life by what happed; he resigned from the priesthood when Keith O’Brien was made his bishop and has undergone long-term psychological counselling. Cardinal O’Brien, by contrast, as his partial confession has revealed, hoped until the last minute that he could bluff it out, as he has done for decades. It was the response of a trapped man, and not an honourable one.

The Vatican will hold an inquiry into the O’Brien affair but it will focus on the weakness of one individual. What it needs to address is what trapped Keith O’Brien – a culture of pretence in the priesthood and a canker of secrecy at the heart of a church which has systematically placed protecting its institutional reputation above the imperatives of the gospel.

The Church Times

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