The last time I met Cardinal Keith O’Brien, I was only 9 years old. He said a special Mass for the 50th Birthday of the Primary School I attended – Greyfriars Primary in St Andrews, as it lay in his Archdiocese (St Andrews and Edinburgh). For many people in Scotland and in the United Kingdom as a whole, he was the face of Catholicism for many years – being the United Kingdom’s indisputably most senior Catholic from 2009-2013 (He disputed the claim that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was the most senior Catholic in the UK, citing the fact they were both Cardinals and the Catholic Church in Scotland was completely separate from England and Wales) and the most senior Catholic in Scotland from 2001-2013. He will be remembered for the scandal surrounding his sexual conduct which condemned him to his final years being spent in public disgrace. However, it is necessary, while not excusing his conduct, to remember that he also did a lot of good in the world and his legacy for the Catholic Church in Scotland is far-reaching.
His tenure as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh spanned much upheaval in Scottish politics, and most importantly a complete change in the dynamics of sectarianism. He was Archbishop through the defusing of tensions in Northern Ireland, which meant he had to become a face for Scottish Catholics that did not want the mires of sectarianism which unfortunately still shows its ugly face in Scottish culture today, and O’Brien making his views on other subjects heard loud and clear on the public stage allowed the Catholic Church to take a new and different role in Scottish society, campaigning for Catholic values such as social .
His effect on the Catholic vote in Scotland cannot be overstated either. His outspoken criticism of the Labour government on nuclear weapons was the start. Then his call for Abortion and Nuclear Weapons to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. An interview in 2006 in which he expressed his support for Scottish independence was a crucial factor in moving the Catholic vote towards the SNP at the 2007 Scottish elections, which so happened to be when SNP first took power. An argument with Tony Blair ensued on the comment that his missionary travels had made him see the benefits of independence for smaller nations. It was the first of many a controversial public spat with leading politicians.
His strength of conviction on Catholic dogma such as same-sex marriage and abortion brought him friends and enemies alike in the media and the establishment. Named “Bigot of the Year” by Stonewall Scotland for calling same-sex marriage “morally degrading” and “grotesque” and engaging in a second public spat with a top politician, this time with Alex Salmond on the Scottish Government’s legalisation of it. However, he was still a moderniser and a critic of priestly celibacy, believing that in order to combat lowering numbers of priests, allowing them to marry was a necessary step for the survival of the Catholic Church, in the light of when Roderick Wright resigned as Bishop of Argyll and the Isles in 1996 in order to marry, and O’Brien was appointed temporary apostolic administrator of the Diocese until a new Bishop was appointed, a position he held until 1999.
His most notable legacy for Catholics outside of Scotland, other than his dramatic fall from grace, will be his eventually successful efforts to repeal the part of the Act of Succession banning Catholics from marrying into the Royal Family, something that he saw and ingrained religious prejudice at the heart of the British establishment.
However, we need to address the elephant in the room – allegations of sexual misconduct during early years of his tenure as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. He admitted them and resigned in disgrace, being forced from the country into a retirement plagued by the media in Newcastle. He was branded a hypocrite by the media for his same-sex marriage denunciations and causing a top-down review of safeguarding, conducted by Andrew McLellan – a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Unfortunately, it is these last years that he will be remembered for.
The thing is, it would be improper to paint Cardinal O’Brien as an objectively perfect man. He committed some grave wrongs and abused his position of power over young priests and hopefully, lessons can be learned by the institution in order to prevent anything of the sort ever happening again. However, in the often quoted words of Marc Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”, or as Jamie McGowan, a law student at the University of Strathclyde and prominent pro-life campaigner put it “O’Brien divided people through scandal but he did a lot of good too, and both these things should be remembered. All that matters now is that we pray for him.”
Upon hearing of his resignation, Alex Salmond despite the argument about same-sex marriage in the spotlight issued a statement: “In all of my dealings with the Cardinal, he has been a considerate and thoughtful leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, stalwart in his faith but constructive in his approach It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation.” It tells you so much that despite the circumstances of his fall from grace, even a man who had criticised Cardinal O’Brien in the past remained full of praise after the revelations became public.
Stephen Robson, Bishop of Dunkeld and a former protégé of O’Brien’s will have the last word – “Though he had done wrong, I can never say I found him to be a wicked man; quite the reverse, he was urbane and thoughtful and kind. In 27 years as a bishop he had done much good for the Faithful of the Archdiocese and had made many loyal friends. I must pray for his victims though and especially for their healing and especially healing of their memories and bad experiences. But we Catholics believe in a just and merciful God and must seek Cardinal Keith’s eternal heavenly reward also. I knew Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien to be a prayerful and devout man – but subject to weakness. Does that exclude him from our prayers or from God’s mercy? I only pray that those he profoundly hurt can also find it in their hearts to pray for him. May he rest in peace.”