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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 23:12 GMT
'Genial' archbishop joins the ranks
Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor becomes a cardinal
Cormac Murphy-O'Connor becomes a cardinal
Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is the 10th successive archbishop of Westminster to be elevated to the rank of cardinal since the restoration of the clergy in England and Wales in 1850.

When he was appointed archbishop to succeed the late Cardinal Basil Hume in February last year, it was inevitable that he in turn would be made a cardinal.

Born into a family of middle-class Irish immigrants in Reading, Murphy-O'Connor made an extraordinarily prophetic remark when he was just three saying his ambition was to be either a "doctor or pope".

He comes from a veritable dynasty of both doctors and priests.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Murphy-O'Connor: 'everyone's favourite bishop'

His father and three brothers, including James Murphy-O'Connor who played rugby for Ireland, were doctors.

Other family members in the clergy include two brothers, two uncles, an aunt and two cousins, one of whom is the world-famous biblical scholar Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor.

Murphy-O'Connor inherited a Catholic church from his predecessor, Basil Hume, which is in some ways stronger in Britain than it has been since the Reformation.

More Catholics than Anglicans attend church services on Sundays and Catholic schools are well-regarded.

Serious decline

Nevertheless, the Church faces grave challenges from within and without. Mass attendance and baptisms are half of what they were at their peak 35 years ago, though the total number of Catholics has grown.

Everyone's favourite bishop, human, genial, collaborative, imposing

The Tablet

But Murphy O'Connor sounded an upbeat note at his ordination as archbishop in March last year.

"I have no time for prophets of doom," he said. "I do not believe these are gloomy times for the Catholic Church in this country."

The image of the clergy has not been helped by the repeated paedophile scandals surrounding Catholic priests - 26 in the last six years.

Most damaging from the new cardinal's point of view was the case of Father Michael Hill who was given a five-year jail sentence for child abuse offences.

Parliamentary standards

Murphy-O'Connor appointed Hill chaplain of Gatwick Airport in 1985, though two years previously he had withdrawn his licence to work as a priest.

He has since admitted the appointment was a "mistake" but he refused to resign as archbishop over it.

Instead, he has set up a commission headed by Lord Nolan, the former chairman of the Public Standards Committee, to oversee the church's child protection procedures.

Leading Catholic journal, The Tablet, has described Murphy-O'Connor as "everyone's favourite bishop, human, genial, collaborative, imposing".

Though regarded as a conservative, he eschews such labels as meaningless. "I am a Catholic bishop who respects the traditions of the church," he has said in the past.

He has been forthright on a number of issues since becoming archbishop of Westminster.

Cardinal Basil Hume
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor took over from Cardinal Basil Hume

He has criticised the government for not doing more to promote marriage and said Catholics should vote for which party it feels promotes the family best at the next general election.

He was sharply critical of MPs and peers who voted to allow the cloning of human embryos for medical research, and of the government for allowing the morning-after pill to be sold over the counter.

His most controversial stance was over the Siamese twins, Mary and Jodie, whose parents were both devout Catholics.

Murphy-O'Connor said it was wrong for the courts and doctors to override the wishes of the girls' parents who did not want the weaker twin Mary to be killed, though their wishes would have meant certain death for both twins in the long run.

At 68, young by the standards of cardinals, Murphy-O'Connor could still fulfil his childhood ambition, though it is unlikely he will be the first Englishman to become pope since Adrian IV in 1154.

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