Cardinal who suffered a spectacular fall from grace

Obituary: Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien remembered as drunken sexual predator

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, pictured in Edinburgh in 2007. Photograph: David Moir/Reuters/File photo

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, pictured in Edinburgh in 2007. Photograph: David Moir/Reuters/File photo


To be given the last rites of the Catholic Church on St Patrick’s Day, which also marked his 80th birthday, and to die two days later on the feast of St Joseph the Worker, surrounded by family, is the stuff of ecclesiastical hagiography that would surely have ensured Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien of Scotland a revered place in the folklore of sanctity.

However, the darker side to the mortal end of a controversial but larger-than-life Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh reads more like the Sturm und Drang of Shakespearian tragedy: a prince of the Church dying in enforced exile from his beloved Scotland in the less hospitable land of the Sassenach as a disgraced prelate-pariah, remembered mostly for his public outing in 2013 as a drunken sexual predator of at least four younger clerics under his once imperial authority.

This outing revealed that the previously moderate liberal priest who favoured married clergy, was a humbug: his strident opposition to same-sex marriage in 2012 earned him the title “Bigot of the Year” by Stonewall, the LGBT campaign group.

To paraphrase Mark Anthony’s noble oration about Caesar, the good done by Cardinal O’Brien for the underprivileged especially in the Third World, is already largely interred with his bones, eclipsed by the retelling of His Eminence’s sensational fall from grace.

Personal sense of theatre A telling insight into Cardinal O’Brien’s public life and his own personal sense of theatre is recalled by a Belfast host who entertained him in the Wellington Park hotel prior to his speaking at a debate in Queens University with a Baroness, a Church of Ireland bishop, a former Presbyterian Moderator and an ex-religious affairs correspondent of The Irish Times. Before finishing yet another pint and gathering his notes from his room, the cardinal enquired: “Do you want me to put on my gear?”This was a reference to donning his robes and red hat to instil an aura of deference among even the most sceptical of Ulster savants. It was quickly agreed that he should wear a black clerical suit and white collar for what was a lengthy debate in which his speech was faultlessly delivered. When some hours later the debate ended and speakers adjourned for a drink, the cardinal retreated to his hotel to have a good night’s sleep ahead of a 4 am rise to travel by air to a mission station in Africa.

No one doubts that Cardinal O’Brien was a man of enormous energy, a trait which he inherited from his father who was a nomadic sailor. Keith was born on March 17th, 1938, in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, where his father, a native of Wexford town and a recipient of a Distinguished Services Medal (DSM) for his participation in Arctic convoys during the second World War, was then stationed. After primary education in Ballycastle, his family moved to Scotland where his father served with the Royal Navy at Faslane in the Gareloch. After attending secondary school at St Patrick’s High, Dumbarton, the sports-minded but bookish young O’Brien completed his schooling in Edinburgh after his father moved there, before studying chemistry at Edinburgh University. This was followed by further studies in philosophy and theology for the priesthood in the closed world of Drygrange seminary. In April 1965 he was ordained by Cardinal Gordon Gray, Scotland’s first cardinal since the 16th century Reformation. After a period teaching maths and doing parish work, he was fast-tracked for high office as Rector of Blairs College, then the junior seminary for Scotland near Aberdeen. In 1985 he was picked to succeed Cardinal Gray by Pope St John Paul II, who had wooed the Scots during his historic visit to Britain in 1982.

Initially, overshadowed by Cardinal Thomas Winning, the Archbishop of Glasgow, who became Scotland’s second post-Reformation cardinal in 1994, O’Brien shared the west coast cleric’s populist mix of liberality on social issues with hard-line intransigence towards gays and same-sex marriage. Like Winning, O’Brien urged his flock to abandon the Labour Party in preference to the Scottish National Party and was often a drinking companion of Alex Salmond in trendy Edinburgh salons. He was fearless in denouncing the US nuclear missiles sited on the Clyde.


In 2001 when Winning died suddenly of a heart-attack, O’Brien was John Paul’s eventual choice in 2003 for a red hat rather than the more refined Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow. At the 2005 conclave O’Brien was influenced by the late Cardinal Desmond Connell to vote for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. In 2010 O’Brien was filmed travelling along Princes Street in the Popemobile with a beaming Pope Benedict, both of them wearing scarves of specially manufactured Papal Tartan.

With Benedict’s resignation in early 2013, the scandalous revelations about O’Brien’s sexual improprieties led to his recusion from the conclave which elected Pope Francis and his banishment to the north of England. A subsequent Vatican inquiry and apostolic visitation produced an unpublished report which reputedly dealt with some 40 allegations spanning decades and a confession that he had an in-house priest lover at his resplendent St Bennet’s residence in the Scottish capital. Presumably, the Vatican will want that report to languish in its secret vaults.

Cardinal Winning’s funeral was witnessed by thousands of mourners; Cardinal O’Brien’s passing was unheralded except for the diplomatic advice of his successor, Archbishop Leo Cushley, urging the faithful to unite in praying for his immortal soul.