Cardinal whose tenure ended in disgrace

Born: March 17, 1938;

Died: March 19 2018

CARDINAL O’Brien, who has died aged 80, was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh from 1985 until his resignation in 2013, and only the fourth Scottish clergyman to have been appointed Cardinal since the Reformation.

The latter part of Keith O’Brien’s tenure was heavily overshadowed by accusations of sexual impropriety, some of which he admitted. O’Brien, after initially denying the claims, by three serving priests and one who had resigned his orders, conceded that his conduct had “fallen short of his duty as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”, and retired from the public life of the church in Scotland.

The question which had exercised the Vatican, and subsequently an apostolic visitation, was whether O’Brien’s liaisons were only a breach of his vow of chastity, or whether they amounted to sexual harassment. No definitive conclusion was reached, or at any rate published.

O’Brien had, in any case, tendered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI in late 2012, shortly before his 75th birthday. But in February 2013, The Observer published allegations about O’Brien having made sexual advances towards several seminarians and priests after drinking sessions in the 1980s. After initial denials, O’Brien announced that he had already resigned, and that he would take no part in the election of Pope Benedict’s successor, becoming the first cardinal to recuse himself from the conclave.

In March 2015, Pope Francis announced that O’Brien would no longer serve as an advisor or take any further part in the church’s governance. Though he nominally retained the title of Cardinal, he was ordered to spend his retirement outside Scotland.

This judgment satisfied no one: those who had complained about O’Brien’s misdeeds were aggrieved that he faced no further reckoning, with one saying that he “posed a danger to himself and others”. The extent of his misdemeanours were never made public. But the issue was not only whether O’Brien’s behaviour had been restricted, as some suspected, to the odd drunken fumble, or had been more predatory and serious. Concerns were also raised about whether his own failings had affected his actions when investigating allegations of sexual misconduct amongst other clergy.

Supporters of O’Brien were also upset by the failure to reach a conclusion. Richard Holloway, the former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, declared that his “enforced exile” from Scotland was akin to the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of terrorist suspects, and that it breached international law.

Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien was born on St Patrick’s Day 1938 at Ballycastle in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, to Mark O’Brien and his wife Alice (née Moriarty). His father, who served with the Royal Navy, was posted to Faslane when Keith was still at primary school, and he grew up in Dalmuir, before attending St Patrick’s High School in Dumbarton. The family then moved to Edinburgh, where he continued his education at Holy Cross Academy.

O’Brien went on to the University of Edinburgh, from which he graduated with a BSc in chemistry in 1959. He then went to seminary at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange, and at teacher training at Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh. He was ordained priest in 1965 by Cardinal Gray, and obtained his diploma in education the following year.

His first posting was a year as a curate at Holy Cross, Edinburgh, before becoming an assistant priest at St Bride’s Cowdenbeath from 1966-71, when he also served as chaplain and a maths and science teacher at St Columba’s High School, first in Cowdenbeath and then Dumfermline. From 1972 until 1975 he was the parish priest at St Patrick’s, Kilsyth, and he then served at St Mary’s Bathgate, from 1975-78.

O’Brien then took up the role of Spiritual Director at St Andrew’s College and, in 1980, moved to become Rector of St Mary’s College at Blair, Aberdeenshire, a post he held for five years, until his appointment as Archbishop in August 1985. He was appointed Cardinal in 2003 by Pope John Paul II.

Before his appointment as Archbishop, O’Brien had been regarded as a relatively liberal figure within the Church. Though he upheld the Church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality – and in 2012, was awarded the title “Bigot of the Year” by the LGBT campaigning group Stonewall for his opposition to same-sex marriage – he rebuked Bishop Joseph Devine in 2005, when he suggested that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in Catholic schools. “I don’t have a problem with the personal life of a person, as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality,” he said.

He was staunchly orthodox on abortion, opposition to secularisation, the liberalization of divorce laws and embryonic stem-cell research, but he made it clear that he did not oppose all scientific work in that field, but only that which used embryos which would later be destroyed. He also, in 2013, declared that he was open to the idea of removing the requirement for celibacy for the priesthood.

O’Brien’s outspoken stance on several issues occasionally irritated some, particularly among the hierarchy of the English Roman Catholic Church. In 1999, he made it clear that he favoured Timothy Radcliffe as the successor to Cardinal Hume as Archbishop of Westminster (the post went to Cormac Murphy-O’Connor). He also indicated that he supported Scottish independence. In 2010 he accused the Scottish Labour Party of having been engaged in a “systematic and unrelenting attack on family values” over the previous decade.

His most high-profile campaign, however, which was rather overshadowed by his later fall from grace, was his outspoken objection to the Act of Settlement, which excludes Catholics, or those married to them, from ascending to the throne.

A keen cyclist and hillwalker, O’Brien was a convivial and popular figure, and was frequently to be spotted at parties in and around Holyrood.

After standing down as Archbishop, O’Brien spent some time in Ireland and then in Northumberland, then in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Newcastle. He suffered a fall last month, and received the last rights on his 80th birthday last Friday.