BBC Radio 4, Monday 4 March
This morning the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland is waking up to one of the biggest crises in its modern history. A few weeks ago, Cardinal Keith O’Brien was expecting to be in Rome electing the next Pope. Now he’s in disgrace, vowing that he’ll never again take part in public life
We still don’t know the details of what he did, simply that he’s admitted to sexual misconduct amongst his fellow priests. Charges of hypocrisy have been swift to follow. This month last year, the Cardinal was on this very programme attacking gay marriage as evidence for the “degeneration of society into immorality”. Indeed, he insisted: “if the UK does go in for same sex marriage it is indeed shaming our country.”
So why is it that all the churches – and not just the Roman Catholic church – seem to attract so many gay men who are themselves so virulently hostile to homosexuality? Perhaps it has to do with a misplaced sense of shame about being gay, a sense of shame that they go on to reinforce by being vocal supporters of the very theology that they themselves have been the victims of. As the novelist Roz Kaveney tweeted yesterday: “I feel sorry for O’Brien. I hope one day he realizes that the sense of sexual sinfulness the Church forced on him was an abuse.” And that “O’Brien needs to distinguish between his sexual desires and his bad behavior and not see all of it as sin.” I totally agree.
The election of a new Pope provides an opportunity for real change. The culture of secrecy that fearfully hides this bad behavior – and not least the clerical abuse of children – needs dismantling from its very foundations. Inappropriate sexual relationships, relationships that trade on unequal power and enforced silence, are the product of an unwillingness to speak honestly, openly and compassionately about sex in general and homosexuality in particular. The importance of marriage as being available to both gay and straight people – and indeed to priests – is that it allows sexual desire to be rightly located in loving and stable relationships. I know there are people who see things differently, but I’m sorry: the churches condemnation of homosexuality has forced gay sex into the shadows, thus again reinforcing a sense of shame that, for me, is the real source of abuse.
Things may now be changing. It is encouraging that four priests have had the courage to speak out against a Cardinal – though one of them has expressed the fear that the Catholic church would “crush him” if they could. This is precisely the climate of fear that does so much to create the conditions of clerical abuse.
“It seems to me that there is nowhere to hide now,” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, the professor of the history of the church at Oxford University in a recent interview. He goes on: “We have had two Popes in succession that have denied that the church needed to change at all. The Roman church has to face realities that it has steadily avoided facing for the last thirty years.” And I might add, not just the Roman church, but my own church too.