If pride comes before a fall, it was a very big one for Cardinal Keith O’Brien and the Catholic Church when the Cardinal got caught with his pants down…
Well, well, well! What a year 2013 was! If there’d been a gay god in Heaven, she’d have thrown a party and we would all have been invited! First Herr Ratzinger suddenly resigned after some wag found a ‘gay mafia’ within the walls of the Vatican, then Mr O’Brien gets caught with his hands down his priests’ cassocks. Never mind Stonewall’s Bigot of the Year award, perhaps we could have just had the names of these seminarians to hand out some big silver goblet at an Oscar ceremony for services to the gay community.
I know. I should have had more sympathy for Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, born into a socially conservative Catholic family in Ireland in 1938 and indoctrinated in a sectarian or so-called ‘faith’ school with all its twisted logic on sex and homosexuality. The Scotsman reported him reassuring everyone: “I accept and promise to defend the ecclesiastical teaching about the immorality of the homosexual act…” You could almost picture him licking his pinkie and flicking over a gilt-edged page of Leviticus. But it all went pear-shaped from there really… Young men boarding in a 19th century baronial mansion at Drygrange, drunken parties, crushes on young ‘pups’, japes in the ‘jakes’ (communal bathrooms) and then lights out in the dorms after a ‘rager’ (wild party). Firstly, the Cardinal, irritable at not knowing what priests had blabbed, scorned them, (so many men…?), accusing them of vagueness before delivering his own mealy-mouthed apology vaguer than an apparition of Mary Magdalene. It was brief. He was forced to suffer the terrible ignominy of admitting: “I’ve fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”. Indeed. All these lads were over 18! But the world wasn’t interested in his man-on-lad fun. The world’s press were honing in on his Ted Haggard moment so we could gasp at his naked hypocrisy! Oh, look…! The Cardinal has no clothes! He added: “In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them,” he protested too much, before adding: “To those I have offended, I apologise and ask forgiveness. To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologise.” The gay community he’d made his mission to kick shit out of were presumably bundled in with the ‘people of Scotland’ before he shot out the door with his bags and fled the country to enjoy his retirement. (Or to live his life as a hermit if you were to believe the Catholic Church).
So there I was, practically dancing naked on the tables in celebration. It was only when I was joined by other religious Catholics did I start to become decidedly uneasy. Daily Telegraph Catholic apologist, Damian Thompson was agreeing with those calling the Church “complacent”, “sclerotic”, “arrogant” and “philistine”. I had to check the newspaper’s header. Eddie Barnes, a former Catholic newspaper editor and one of many Catholic contributors to The Scotsman called the Church “fallen”. Archbishop Tartaglia grimly warned from the pulpit the church had had its “credibility undermined” and was “damaged by hypocrisy”. There came a point when even the BBC confessed the Catholic Church didn’t have anyone in Scotland that could comment on stories.
Those left standing looked decidedly ridiculous. A Catholic woman on Call Kaye’s BBC Scotland phone-in was frothing at the mouth over a “gay agenda”. Reporters attending a Mass found members of the congregation dismissing allegations as “lies”. The bad-tempered Peter Kearney of the Scottish Catholic Media Office – normally always up for a fight – was nowhere to be seen. First Minister, Alex Salmond, who had publicly backed Cardinal O’Brien, opened the doors to Bute House after his election and spoiled him with private meetings over equal marriage (the Equality Network had none), was determined not to be distracted by the cleric’s downfall after all the good things he’d done. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill who must’ve been listening to Steps in the car called it a “tragedy”.
The Scottish Catholic Media Office looked sadly desperate as they attempted to pick up the pieces. A front page ‘exclusive’ by Joe McGuire in The Glaswegian was defiant: “CITY KEEPS THE FAITH” and “Church scandal ‘will pass’”. Archbishop Tart’s spokesman begged the congregation “not to throw in the towel” and, in a perkier note, added: “All the reports we have suggest that people are continuing to attend church as normal – we certainly haven’t registered a drop on attendance”. That was not confirmed by other reports; one finding Mass numbers down by a half. One almost felt sorry for Peter Kearney, who, only weeks ago, was pictured happily languishing across a sofa in beige.
There was nothing left to do but for the press to give a brief but passing mention to what fun it was having Keith in the house before looking back on his best bits.
One section of the community had borne the brunt of Cardinal Keith’s best moments. Every nasty attack backed by the Vatican, amplified by the Scottish Catholic Media Office and their media cronies were engraved on his headstone. Like when he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that same-sex marriage was “grotesque”, a form of “madness” and “like bringing back slavery”. The Vatican wing of the BBC had treated it as ‘breaking news’, headlining the story with feigned surprise that he should be the “latest” of several senior clergy they’d been lining up to bad-mouth same-sex marriage.
O’Brien was reported saying gays were ‘captives’ of ‘sexual aberrations’. He bragged about his deep pockets too. In the Sunday Times Scotland, he warned the Scottish Government that it could expect an “unprecedented backlash” from his Church if it let gays marry, claiming “marriage is under threat and politicians need to know the Catholic Church will bear any burden and meet any cost in its defence.” He promised the Catholic Church would spend an additional £100,000 on an advertising campaign against the plans, on top of the £50,000 it had already spent.
Prior to Ratzinger’s ‘state’ visit to Scotland – which was at considerable cost to taxpayers, involving the raiding of funds set aside for overseas aid and coinciding with news of 13 suicides of former victims of priestly abuse in Belgium – The Scotsman printed issue after issue of coverage with fawning deference to the Catholic Church, including a double-page spread with several photos of Cardinal Keith O’Brien laughing; smiling and saying that he would be “happy” if the Pope didn’t apologise for child abuse, adding that there wasn’t very much in Scotland anyway. Oh no? With demonstrable indifference to the head of the BBC Trust, Tory Lord Patten, who took personal charge of the Papal visit, a renegade journo at the BBC discovered bishops in the Catholic Church in Scotland weren’t always passing cases of child abuse to the police and reported at least 20 allegations of child sex abuse by priests between 1985 and 1995.
Was Cardinal Keith O’Brien reminiscing with any fondness to a time when the Catholic Church supported Catholic sexual repression and hypocrisy? A time when, in 1994, Father Tom Connelly, skirting almost every story on morality in the Scottish press on behalf of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, and Cardinal Winning both advised that child sex-abuse cases shouldn’t be reported to the police – that it was the victim’s job! When in 2003, another Catholic columnist, Dani Garavelli could gleefully write in Scotland on Sunday: “O’Brien’s mild manner and open-mindedness on issues such as gay and married clergy have made him a popular figure both in and out of religious circles. His famous New Year soirees are attended by an eclectic group of people – MPs and cabinet ministers, journalists, priests and judges – all of whom turn up as much to enjoy his company as to network”. O’Brien wasted no time saying how offended he was by accusations he was a ‘liberal’.
With Vatican sympathisers at the very top of our State Broadcaster, Cardinal Keith O’Brien could be sure that any of the institution’s lies and obfuscations would be served to every household in Scotland on a gilded plate. The BBC became an institution like the Vatican where pious Catholics like Jimmy Savile abused with impunity. But it is that vaulted position that set O’Brien apart from all the other old fools to make the backlash of criticism so necessary. So very legitimate. A hypocrisy that had to not only be exposed; but publicly reviled. Hypocrisy can indeed be the denial of some indiscrete fumblings. It can also be Nazis burning books and records containing details of their own indiscretions before incarcerating others for what they’ve done themselves. Hypocrisy doesn’t just manifest as bullying; it can become state-endorsed persecution.
It takes just one guilt-laden, confused, drunken, excited sexual encounter, wrapped in religious dogma and cant, to later manifest itself into horrible atrocities. That is what I see behind the Greek Orthodox Church building brutal alliances with Greek neo-Nazi Party, Golden Dawn, physically assaulting playgoers outside Terence McNally’s Corpus Christi play in Athens. Or when Christian Orthodox members chant and wave religious icons as they invade a gay film showing in Bucharest screaming ‘death to gays’ with right-wing militants while police stand by and do nothing. Or when police sanction violent gangs allied to the Russian Orthodox Church to attack protesters of new laws outlawing gay equality. Then, as the virus spreads amongst its sexually dysphoric hosts, I see the BNP’s Nick Griffen take his seat in an hour-long debate on Christian TV. And I see The Sun, owned by a patron of much Vatican funding, Rupert Murdoch, engaging in talks with UKIP, virtually the only Party left promising Christians untold religious privileges if they win.
As Niemöller might’ve said if he hadn’t been a former Nazi sympathising conservative Christian: First they came for the homosexuals.
Garry Otton, 2013