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Last Updated: Monday, 4 April 2005, 17:39 GMT 18:39 UK
Profile: Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Bob Chaundy
BBC News Profiles Unit

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor outside Westminster Cathedral
Cardinal Murphy O'Connor leads Britain's 4.5 million Catholics
For such a holy man, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's surname came to be for a very earthly reason.

His great-grandfather was an O'Connor who ran a liquor business with a Murphy. One day, the childless Murphy offered to leave the company to O'Connor's eldest son on the condition he took the name Murphy O'Connor.

The deal was done.

Despite his Irish heritage, the Cardinal was born in Reading, one of six children of a Cork doctor, on 24 August 1932.

Three of his five brothers became priests and another played rugby for Ireland.

He attended a Christian Brothers school in Bath, in which he said "they relied too much on the strap as a means of discipline". Nevertheless, he had found his vocation and began training for the priesthood at the English College, Rome, when he was 18.

It was here that he admitted on Desert Island Discs that he learned to mix a good Martini cocktail.

Within six years, he was ordained as a Catholic priest after studying philosophy and theology.

He returned to the English College as rector from 1971-77, a post which brought him into contact with Vatican officials.

Pope John Paul making the Archbishop a Cardinal in 2001
Pope John Paul making the Archbishop a Cardinal in 2001
On leaving Rome, he was appointed as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, a diocese that included Gatwick Airport.

It was for this reason that it fell to him to be the first to greet Pope John Paul II when he landed there on his visit to Britain in May 1982. It was his most dramatic meeting with the Pontiff.

The Falklands War was on, England was not a Catholic country, and, as the first up the steps to enter the plane, Bishop Murphy-O'Connor found the Pope looking apprehensive.

"I said 'All will be well' or something like that. He just smiled and, from then on, things just got better and better."


But soon after succeeding Cardinal Basil Hume as Archbishop of Westminster in 2000, an incident that had occurred during his time in Arundel and Brighton came back to haunt him and nearly cost him his job.

It emerged that he had failed to act when a priest, Fr Michael Hill, became known to him as a paedophile. Instead of informing the police of the allegations against Hill, he moved him to the chaplaincy at Gatwick Airport where he believed the priest would no longer be a danger to children.

In 1997, however, Hill was convicted of sex attacks against nine children. After serving three years, he was then given another sentence of five years for assaults on three more boys.

Father Michael Hill
Father Michael Hill, exposed as a paedophile.
There began a media frenzy which put pressure on the Cardinal to resign but he showed resilience and refused, claiming he had never lost the confidence of his Church.

He argued that at the time, little was understood of the compulsive nature of paedophilia by the Church, the police and the judiciary.

He was cleared by an inquiry and set up the Nolan Commission which established a more rigorous child protection system.

Also, in his first year as Archbishop of Westminster, he remarked that Christianity, as a background to moral life, was "almost vanquished". This sparked off what became known as The Great Cormac Debate. It ended five days later, on 11 September.

Organising Catholic communities

But the Archbishop, who was promoted to Cardinal in February 2001, had made his views known about how unimpressed he is with many aspects of modern life. "We live in an instant society. People want to press a button and have instant solutions," he once said.

He believes society "has lost its sense of community and its sense of right and wrong".

He organised a strategy, when first becoming Archbishop, of forming small communities of Catholics in every parish to meet together and discuss the Scriptures.

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor with Dr Rowan Williams
Cardinal Murphy O'Connor enjoys good relations with the Archbishop of Canterbury
He is regarded as a liberal on some issues. He believes there is a strong case for the ordination of married men, for instance. But Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is unswervingly traditional in his Catholic orthodoxy over its hostility to euthanasia, cloning and abortion.

In his Easter Sunday message, he compared modern-day terminations to Nazi eugenics. He condemned "the terrible truth that it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak".

And he caused more controversy by supporting Michael Howard's proposal to lower the legal age of foetus termination from 24 weeks to 20. However, he tried to distance himself from any notion that the Catholic Church was supporting the Conservatives in the forthcoming election.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is regarded as an amiable, urbane man whose personal powers of articulacy have progressed from the bumbling to the assured.

He believes the main problem facing the next Pope, and it's highly unlikely, but not impossible that it might be him, is to address the decline of the Catholic Church in its traditional European heartland.

Cardinal O'Connor on greeting the Pope in Britain

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