The Scottish McCarrick

Cardinal Sin Brian Devlin

Brian Devlin could have called his book Ordained by a Predator, Scottish Version. Except that Devlin was not, in fact, ordained by the predator. The predator became Archbishop a few weeks after Devlin’s ordination.

Devlin was, though, preyed-upon by the predator. He was preyed upon by a priest who, like McCarrick, went on to become both a Cardinal and the most-prominent churchman in the land. In the case of Keith Card. O”Brien, the land was Scotland.

Devlin narrates what happened one evening in O’Brien’s room in the seminary. The two of them had just prayed Night Prayer.

Devlin was a 20-year-old seminarian at the time. He lived in fear of being expelled and having to explain it to his Irish mama. Devlin writes:

I was highly tuned into the reality of the power O’Brien had over me. I knew that if I displeased or challenged him, I would be a casualty at the next student-review meeting… The thoughts of the review meeting induced panic in me. Have I offended any of the faculty? …Will I be kicked-out?

Many students were sent packing. There was no appeal. No process of scrutinizing the scrutinizers. Their power is final, and it’s ruthless. And inherent within it is its ability to be manipulated into a sexual predator’s playground.

[NB. This quotation is actually a combination of a passage in Devlin’s book and a passage in a magazine article he wrote summarizing his book.]

Keith O’Brien was twenty years older than Devlin, and he was the seminary “spiritual director.” O’Brien had spent years grooming Devlin, so that the young seminarian would think nothing of coming to O’Brien’s room to pray Night Prayer, just the two of them. They had, in fact, done so many times.

Devlin writes:

At the end of the evening, Keith would usually envelop me in his hug, and I would leave. However, on that night something different happened. He did hug me… but it was far far longer than it had ever been before, with a greater intensity. I remember as I turned to leave, he sat down and pulled me on top of him.

My first reaction was of total confusion. Had he stumbled and pulled me down accidentally? But then he put his arms around me. I felt a fleeting sense of how ridiculous this was: nearly six-foot-tall me sitting on this much older man’s knee. He began to caress me. He told me that he loved me. At that point I was asking myself if he was joking. But then it became clear he wasn’t.

He told me he would always love me. With ever more urgency he rubbed my arms and chest. My embarassment turned to shame and fear.

Devlin managed to get himself out of the room. The next morning O’Brien manipulated the young man into ‘forgiving’ him. Devlin reflects:

I told him everything was fine. (I was too shocked and confused to say otherwise.) I told him I forgave him. What else could I do?

Devlin continues:

On reflection, without doubt his plea for forgiveness was a way of preventing me from talking about it further. He bound me to silence that morning.

At that instant I gained an important, life-changing insight. I felt with certainty that O’Brien was a conman and a sham.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien Pope Benedict
Keith O’Brien and Prince Phillip welcoming Pope Benedict to the UK in 2010

Like with McCarrick, the silence that O’Brien imposed on his victims stretched on for decades. When O’Brien was named Archbishop of Edinburgh, a few years after the episode narrated above–and only weeks after Devlin had been ordained–the new priest decided he had no choice but to leave the priesthood. He knew he couldn’t serve under the conman.

Twenty-five years later, however, Devlin came into contact with some old friends from the seminary, through the new gizmo called Facebook. He learned that he was not alone in keeping a secret about the Archbishop. And he learned that the Vatican had known some of these secrets for years. Apparently O’Brien sexually assaulted a subordinate while he was in Rome to receive his Cardinal’s hat in 2003.

(Makes me wonder who McCarrick may have assaulted when he got his red hat in 2001–and I was twenty feet away, oblivious.)

Devlin’s conversations with his old friends gave him a new perspective. He writes:

It was almost too astonishing to believe that, after never having spoken with these men for decades, we were now having deep and intimate conversations about similar experiences from the past which had caused us immense suffering.

They showed me true friendship. The did not see what had happened to me as being less relevant than their own experience because I had left the priesthood and they’d stayed and slogged it out.

Devlin thought the group should share their stories with the public. But the others preferred to try the internal Church process instead. Devlin agreed to co-operate with the effort.

Choosing the ecclesiastical-protocol path would eventually expose this fact: There really is no internal-Church process. No one to whom they complained really wanted to do anything about it.

Somehow this took Devlin by suprise.

I had not at all considered that the Church might choose to do nothing. I had never for an instant thought that anyone would need to be convinced. I had presumed there would be some sort of legal process that the Church would have in place to deal with whistle-blowers like us, and it wouldn’t matter if the person being accused were a bishop and Cardinal.

I was very wrong.

It was not enough for four priests to swear before Almighty God and testify that we were abused by O’Brien. Instead the nuncio [Vatican ambassador to the UK] would have to ‘convince all the powers that be in Rome’ to take our concerns on.

(Of course, if Devlin had had the chance to speak ahead of time with all the poor souls who tried for decades to get the ‘powers that be in Rome’ to listen to them about McCarrick’s abuses, he would not have had such a suprise.)

So, in the end, the group of O’Brien survivors did what Devlin had wanted to do originally: go public with their stories.

As it happened, a reporter published their full story shortly before the conclave of March 2013.

The Vatican nuncio had threatened the survivors, insisting that they keep quiet. Had they complied with that threat, O’Brien might very well have entered the conclave as a voting Cardinal. He could have been elected pope, just as McCarrick could have been elected pope in 2005–even though the sworn testimonies of at least two of his victims already sat in Vatican files. (O’Brien could have been elected pope in 2005, too–even though apparently at least someone in the Vatican knew he had sexually assaulted a subordinate in Rome two years earlier.)

The public furor resulting from the late-February 2013 article, however, finally moved the Vatican brass to do something. They put O’Brien out to pasture, with the excuse that he would soon turn 75. O’Brien co-operated.

Devlin reflects:

Church authorities were blinded by their fear of scandal. The true scandal, though, wasn’t the publicity we caused. The scandal was the hypocritical sexual predation of Cardinal O’Brien and the desire by Church leaders, in the full knowledge of that behavior, quietly to cover it up.

They did not want to turn over the rock, for fear of what they might find hidden under it.

Devlin adds, with real magnanimity:

There was also the question of O’Brien’s right to challenge us, his accusers, if he wanted to. Due process in every other circumstance would give someone that right. Not, it seems, in the Church.

The Vatican considered the matter settled after O’Brien went into retirement. But Devlin continued to press for some kind of genuine judicial process. He believed the Catholics of Scotland deserved the truth, and a sense of justice being served. Devlin tried working his way through Church channels again, to no avail. So he wrote directly to Pope Francis.

Holy Father, Cardinal O’Brien has been sent for six months prayer and penance. And then what? Are we expected to regard this as fair and due process? Indeed, is the Cardinal himself not justified in expecting more than this?

I am not asking for much, Holy Father. I simply want to know what is being done, and what will be done, to investigate the abuse and harm caused by Cardinal O’Brien against me and many others.

Devlin laments the fact that, to this day, his letter to the pope remains unacknowledged and unanswered.

A year after Devlin wrote to Pope Francis, a Vatican official showed up in Scotland to take the testimony of Keith O’Brien’s victims. Devlin found the official to be a kind listener.

A year after that, the Vatican announced that O’Brien had resigned the ‘rights and privileges’ of being a Cardinal, while retaining the title. O’Brien made a brief public statement to the same effect.

Devlin writes:

I found out about this announcement through Twitter. There was no personal communication from the Church authorities in Scotland or in Rome. I was offered no sight of the report prepared by the Vatican official, not even a redacted version of it. It may be that it never crossed anyone’s mind that I would have a desire or even the right to see what had been written about me.

In his statement, O’Brien made reference to the ‘fatherly care’ Pope Francis had given both him ‘and those I have offended in any way.’

I’m still waiting to be offered some of that care, fatherly or otherwise, from this most pastoral of popes. I don’t suppose I’ll hear from him anytime soon.

The report prepared by the Vatican official has never been published. Devlin and others demanded that a full, public investigation of the Archdiocese was necessary, because of the cover-up and cronyism involved in O’Brien’s long tenure.

Another O’Brien survivor insisted that there was a financial aspect: he knew of O’Brien giving a jet-ski to a paramour, and no one knew where the money came from.

No such investigations were ever carried out.

O’Brien died in 2018.

Devlin writes lovely, introspective prose. He has ideas about Catholic sexual morality–ie., that it is wrong. I do not agree with that. But this book is well worth reading. Brian Devlin is a champion of justice and of Christianity. He is a hero.

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4 thoughts on “The Scottish McCarrick

  1. Have read this twice. Gives one a great deal to think about, especially the fact that Devlin chose to leave the priesthood.
    Judy R.

  2. Father, I’ve already started the Cardinal Sin. Donna and I were at 4:30 Mass yesterday, and both David and Jack were there. Donna and I were disappointed that you were not given any credit for helping both of these men in discerning their vocations to the Priesthood. Oh well, at least you and your mother appear in the prayer list. Joe

  3. Setting aside the question of whether it’s really fair to call O’Brien, who is not accused of assaulting any minors, a Scottish McCarrick, I don’t think we can absolve the adult recipients of improper sexual conduct from moral responsibility the way it seems to me you are doing.

    If I were a Catholic in the Metuchen diocese, for example, I’d be pretty ticked at the young men in the beach house for not exposing McCarrick way back then. For they knew all along who the man really was, while others trustingly sent their sons to his seminaries, their children to his confirmations, gave due submission to his sin-tainted judgments, and gave him the reins of power in the diocese built by their hard-earned contributions. The faithful have a right to bishops who don’t live that way, and the silence of those harassed or worse deprived the faithful of this right. While minors are certainly absolved of any responsibility to bring their own assault to someone’s attention, I just don’t think the same thing can be said once you’re 18.

    So, for example, a seminarian could have written a signed, open letter to the people of the diocese saying, “I, (state your name), witnessed Bishop McCarrick ask me to put on a sailor suit and let him rub my back while we spend the night in the same bed. I don’t want my career to be jeopardized, but I cannot allow him to jeopardize the welfare of the Church. I am willing to testify to this in a court of law if necessary.” These form letters could be on a website somewhere, and the openness of them would provide protection against the whistleblower (at least one hopes.) This is the only way I see that we’re going to know the problem is addressed going forward; any kind of process is simply going to stumble over the he-said/he-said problem.

    In golf tournaments, there’s a concept they call “protecting the field.” Because golf doesn’t have referees like other sports, and players play in groups of two or three, sometimes away from anyone’s eyes, the integrity of the game depends on players calling penalties on each other if they see them. In other words, there’s no fear of being called a “narc” if you witness your playing partner take an illegal drop, etc. And there’s no expectation to “look the other way” on a player who maybe is a friend of yours or is already struggling and so you might be tempted to cut him some slack. Rather, the sportsmanship of the game makes it understood that a player will lose all respect of his peers and probably get ostracized for life if he ever looks out for the one player in his group instead of protecting the other hundred or so in the rest of the tournament field who are counting on the same rules being applied to all competitors. That is, any temptation to let your buddy slide is greatly offset by the lifetime stigma and career-ending breach you would risk if he ever let your secret out to anybody.

    This concept applies to the Church as well. There’s no third-party referee in a confessional, or a two-man night prayer session, or a bed at a McCarrick beach weekend. The people who witness the violations protect the rest of us in the Church, who are trusting that whenever such delicts are spotted, they are brought to everyone else’s attention. Once such victims are of age, I do not believe we can be so excusing of their silence. How many children were assaulted because parents trusted McCarrick between the time of his first beach house sins and his removal from office? Any of the Jersey beach-goers might have caused these parents to trust Uncle Ted somewhat less, yet they kept quiet and looked out for their own careers.

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