by Guy Brandon
Amongst the rumours and half-truths surrounding Keith O'Brien, at least two key pieces of information have become clear over the last 48 hours. One is that Cardinal O'Brien has now admitted that his sexual conduct 'has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal' - ecclesiastical code that he should have stepped down some time ago, and presumably back in the 1980s, to when the first incidences date. (The language used may or may not indicate that the improper behaviour continued until relatively recently.) The second is that he has been accused of nothing illegal.
Aside from the men who have alleged unwanted advances from Cardinal O'Brien, it seems that there were numerous other incidents of consensual contact, and possibly on-going sexual relationships. Their extent is unknown and, thanks to the nature of the Vatican investigation, may always be unknown. ...but the harm that the Cardinal's admissions have done, and will continue to do to the Catholic Church and the wider community of faith, are a clear demonstration of the broader impact that apparently private sexual acts can have.
The admissions are all the more damaging because O'Brien has been an outspoken critic of homosexual relationships, and particularly the government's plans to legalise same-sex marriage. (As a result, he was named 'bigot of the year' by Stonewall last year.) The charge of hypocrisy is particularly harmful. ..but is it justified?
On one level, the answer has to be 'yes': the Cardinal was engaging in private in the kind of relationship he openly criticised - with consequences for those for whom he held duties of pastoral care, amongst many others.
On another, we have to be careful. Tacit links have been made between O'Brien and Jimmy Savile, due to their long-standing friendship, with the Cardinal tarred by association. But it is too simplistic to think that, like Savile, O'Brien was hiding his offences in plain sight, calculatedly using his influence as a means to abuse. More likely - though admittedly impossible to prove - was that he was uncomfortable with his behaviour, and the episodes recounted in the news occurred despite his public stance, rather than the latter being a cover for the former. As Paul wrote in Romans 7:15-20, 'I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.'
For Christians, hypocrisy goes with the territory.