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Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 16:34 GMT
Murphy O'Connor enters difficult waters
Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Roman Catholics in England and Wales are evaluating the long awaited response of their leader, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, to the mounting criticism of his handling of allegations of sex abuse.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is a gentle and thoughtful man, a much loved figure in the Church.

Since he became its leader he had guided Roman Catholics steadily towards the mainstream of British life.


The Church did not wish to court shame and humiliation, and had a tendency to forgive rather than to condemn.

The cardinal has been courted by the establishment.

He preached to the Queen at Sandringham in January, and has voiced his opposition to old laws preventing the heir to the throne marrying a Roman Catholic. But these are difficult times for Church leaders.

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, like a generation of bishops and archbishops elsewhere in the world, inherited - during the 1980s and 90s - a body of priests in which sexual abuse of children had been all too common.

Fresh abuse

The Church did not wish to court shame and humiliation, and had a tendency to forgive rather than to condemn.

That - and conflicting expert advice - led, in the cardinal's case to what he has acknowledged was one serious mistake.

As Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, he redeployed Father Michael Hill to a job at Gatwick Airport despite clear evidence of his tendency to paedophilia, and Hill went on to abuse again.


Just by appearing in public to answer his critics the cardinal did much to defuse the situation

All this came out two or more years ago, but the re-sentencing of Michael Hill to a fresh term of imprisonment, and further allegations - including against priests then under the cardinal's care - has brought a new wave of recriminations against him, and calls for his resignation.

For two weeks the cardinal refused interviews as the Church slid perilously towards a crisis over the issue.

Then came an interview on Newsnight, which Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor must have hoped would lay the issue more or less to rest.

But will it? Just by appearing in public to answer his critics the cardinal did much to defuse the situation.

By choosing an interview with Jeremy Paxman he could no longer be accused of hiding.

Abusive priests

He was contrite, admitting mistakes, particularly in the Michael Hill case, but also all the way up to the adoption in April 2000 of the child protection measures recommended by Lord Nolan.

He said he'd been naive, even ignorant, and acknowledged the pain and distress of those who'd been abused.


The fact that it was even then clearly a crime remains the most serious single cloud over the cardinal's head

He even said the Church has lacked compassion for victims of abusive priests. But it was an uneasy performance.

The cardinal is not a born politician, nor does he seem at home under pressure on the television.

He gave the impression of a man only now coming to a belated recognition of just how damaging the legacy of abuse was.

He admitted the interview was "rather late", saying he had not wanted to appear defensive, and had needed longer to reflect on what he called the terror and darkness of abuse.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's intervention was not enough for some of his critics.

Lee Moore, the President of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, was among those repeating calls for him to resign.

She said the Church still demanded confidentiality from people to whom it paid compensation, and still had a policy of concealment.

Serious cloud

Margaret Kennedy, who was abused herself and now runs the Ministry and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors group, said the cardinal should go and be replaced by someone less stuck in the Church's "old mindset".

Margaret Kennedy also criticised the Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor for his attack on the media.


The pope will not want to see such a senior figure lose his job over this loaded issue

In a letter to The Times, he accused journalists of relentless attacks on the Church and even on the Roman Catholic faith itself.

In his Newsnight interview the cardinal said he no longer wanted to stress that.

He also soft-pedalled another of the Church's main strategies - the argument that fifteen odd years ago the obsessive and incurable nature of paedophilia was not understood.

The fact that it was even then clearly a crime remains the most serious single cloud over the cardinal's head.

Sussex police are investigating whether he may be guilty of any criminal intent in hiding the activities of a paedophile priest.

The cardinal absolutely denies this, and distinguishes between mistakes and acting improperly. If there are no other cases similar to that of Michael Hill still to come out - and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor says there are not - it seems most unlikely he will go.

Good will

The pope will not want to see such a senior figure lose his job over this loaded issue, especially if it could be seen as undermining the Church's argument about how understanding of paedophilia has only lately developed.

The cardinal's own moral authority has been damaged - experience in the United States shows that trust has particularly been lost in bishops - but he has got credit from putting the Nolan guidelines in place.

His commitment to preventing future abuse is not in doubt.

He is a sincere man of undoubted good will, and his courage in, belatedly, facing his critics will have reassured Roman Catholics.

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