I believe …
It tends to be the case that people who have done something wrong try to deny it if they can. Either we learn this in childhood, or it’s evidence that the myth of original sin still has something important to say.
In institutions the tendency to lie one’s way out of trouble is compounded by questions of group loyalty. This leads to an instinct for cover-up. We’ve seen it in the collapse of the News of the World, in parliamentary expenses, and in the churches’ paedophilia scandals, to name but three.
People who dislike, deny or can’t cope with aspects of their own behaviour tend to be more critical of that behaviour in others. We see it in trivial day to day examples of office clashes as well as in larger stories.
People who suppress aspects of their character often find themselves ambushed by their shadow side when they are in situations of stress, depression or isolation. It’s a commonplace of therapy and counselling.
If the world was full of people whose only moral aspirations were things they could easily achieve, we would probably all be a lot worse off. In character and behaviour, as in so much else, it’s not a bad thing if our reach exceeds our grasp.
I don’t know which of those are the more accurate observations regarding Cardinal O’Brien. Nor, despite the column inches of speculation, does anyone else.
It’s bad and sad for those with whom he abused his position of power in apparently unwanted sexual contact (although the extent of the abuse seems open enough for people to read a range of possibilities into it). We know O’Brien failed in his responsibility to them. It looks as though others did also by making it hard for them to tell the truth. But we may never know whether others failed in their responsibility to O’Brien – his spiritual director, those who put him forward for promotion, even his friends.
But I’m struggling to read a much bigger lesson out of it than one man’s fallibility, and one institution’s group loyalty. There will be plenty of other examples of both to be found wherever human beings hold power, and organise themselves.
If there is a lesson for the church and for O’Brien, it’s a reminder that true spirituality is meant to lead to self-knowledge, and not provide a romantic or theological facade behind which we can hide from the truth about ourselves. But that’s easier to know than to do.