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Cardinal's victims need all our sympathy

It was in many ways admirable of Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, to leap to the defence of the disgraced Cardinal Keith O'Brien.

Speaking of the Cardinal's banishment from Scotland by the Vatican, he expressed his disgust. Never mealy-mouthed, he likened the cleric's forced exile for what Rome has termed "the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance" to the CIA's tactics of extraordinary rendition. Decrying this draconian act, Mr Holloway urged compassion towards the elderly Cardinal O'Brien, who should be allowed to return to Dunbar, where he had hoped to spend his retirement.

"Doubtless," he said, "a time will come when Cardinal O'Brien will want to be reconciled with those he has offended". That could only happen, though, when the hullabaloo has died down, and the cardinal is allowed to live peacefully in his own home. Mr Holloway was in no doubt, however, that forgiveness would be forthcoming, that being the essence of Christianity.

I agree that the Vatican's long reach is disturbing. That it can make a priest pack his bags and leave the country, in the knowledge that he cannot return without the Pope's approval, is decidedly sinister. As Mr Holloway points out, even in the Middle Ages steps were taken to prevent this sort of interference from Rome.

The Vatican insists that the cardinal's compulsory expulsion is "not a banishment order", but few would interpret it otherwise. Indeed, it is simply another indication that the church behaves today, as in the past, as if it were above the laws of any nation. Although some of those who accused the cardinal of abuse are said to be content with the action taken to remove him from the scene, others are far from happy. While no complaint has been made to the police about the alleged incidents, it does not appear that the church has instigated any official investigation into the events. If it has, then it is remaining tight-lipped. In this, as in spiriting the cardinal out of Scotland, the Vatican is acting in an imperious manner better suited to medieval times than our supposedly transparent age.

There's no great surprise in any of this, of course. Nor are cover-ups of institutional wrong-doing the sole preserve of the Catholic Church. What is unique, however, is that even when accusations have been officially recorded, the church does not feel obliged to conduct a full and frank legal inquiry. Whereas in other walks of life those accused of sexual misdemeanours have to wait to find out if they have been charged, and if so then go to trial, those in the cardinal's position are subject to an entirely different system of retribution: one that is simultaneously authoritarian and inadequate. For a self-confessed miscreant such as the cardinal there is, it would appear, no question of criminal charges being brought. Instead, words such as penance and forgiveness are thrown about to sweeten the air and cloud the issue, like incense from a thurible.

I share Mr Holloway's horror over the cardinal's exile, but am less sure about raising the issue of reconciliation. While one hopes that this painful and damaging case will end in forgiveness by all those who have been hurt, it seems premature to be talking about salving his conscience when as yet the abused have received no meaningful apology. Let's not forget that after his initial vehement denials, the cardinal admitted sexually inappropriate behaviour only when all other avenues had closed.

None of us knows the details of the purported acts, nor need we. But for the moment, one's sympathies must lie primarily with the cardinal's victims. To accuse a man of his stature, in a church whose first instinct is not disclosure and discipline but self-preservation, takes a degree of courage few in the secular world can imagine. The fortitude and resolve these men have shown in going public is not unlike that of a battered wife facing up to the husband she must continue to live with once her complaint has been lodged. In that respect, the church is like a close family – sadly more Sopranos than Waltons. To anticipate forgiveness before there has even been an investigation is to place the offender's needs before those of the people he has wronged. The time for that will come, but it is some way off. Before any reconciliation, there must first be truth.

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