O’Brien and the canker of secrecy
The RC Church needs to address its culture of
priestly pretence, says Paul Vallely
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?
Neither of these responses can be correct. The crime of the
former Archbishop of St Andrews & 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 Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology in the United States
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
Freud called this "reaction formation" - individuals inwardly
struggling to stifle feelings that 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 hostility to homosexuality as
"morally disordered" and a "grotesque subversion". But it means
that Cardinal O'Brien is also a victim, and that, as one
commentator put it, the sense of sexual sinfulness that 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
There was also a fundamental dishonesty about his initial
reaction to the accusations, announcing that he would fight them,
and threatening The Observer with legal action.
"Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to
contest them," he said in his most recent confession. But he knew
well what he had done. And the complainants were not anonymous;
they had sent sworn statements to the Papal Nuncio.
The interview given by one of the accusers laid bare the extent
to which he had been deeply damaged by what had happened; he
resigned from the priesthood when Fr O'Brien was made his bishop,
and has undergone long-term psychological counselling. Cardinal
O'Brien, by contrast, 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
that has systematically placed protecting its institutional
reputation above the imperatives of the gospel.