Politics, Religion and the abuse of power
Neither Cardinal Keith O'Brien nor Lord Rennard is accused of pederasty, incest or rape. But the allegations against them are still very serious, for they are concerned with sexual misdemeanour and the abuse of power. The former is accused of 'inappropriate acts' with teenage seminarians. The latter of 'inappropriate behaviour' towards women. Both men, of course, are denying the claims.
If you are Roman Catholic, you leap to defend your cardinal. If you are Liberal Democrat, you leap to defend your peer. Notably, those who hurl allegations of bigotry or bias in the mere reporting if the allegations against the Cardinal are mostly indifferent to the plight of the Peer: it is far easier to presume the innocence of your co-religionists than it is of your political opponents. The demands for justice and appeals to due process are vapid in the double standards and hypocrisy: if you're a cardinal, you have rights and are equal before the law; if you're a LibDem, stuff that, who cares? One look at that smug, corpulent visage is enough to determine guilt.
Millions want Cardinal O'Brien to be absolved and his male accusers exposed as the charlatans they are. Millions want Lord Rennard to be guilty, and his female accusers lauded for their bravery in confronting the sexist sleazeball. But the Cardinal may be guilty and the Peer may be innocent: it is for weighing the evidence in such cases that we have courts of law and trials by jury.
But neither case is likely ever to come to court: both are now subject to internal inquiries - the Cardinal's case is with the Pope; the Peer's case is with a LibDem committee. And the Liberal Democrats have a cloaking machine every bit as effective as the chronic cover-ups of the Roman Catholic Church. Where religion and politics are concerned, the powerful always act to protect their own. And the victims become collateral damage; discarded on the rubbish heap of inferior humanity.
But we must not ignore the timing of these revelations. The Cardinal is about to fly to Rome to choose the next pope - the only voting representative from the UK. All of Britain's Roman Catholics are hoping for a hint, awaiting clue of how he might cast his ballot. The Peer is in the middle of what is possibly the most important by-election in a generation. All of Britain's politicos are waiting to see if the LibDems can hold on to Eastleigh or if the Conservatives can take the seat from them. On this result rests the futures of Nick Clegg, David Cameron and possibly the outcome of the next General Election.
Nick Clegg is clearly of the view that the timing of these allegations - not the allegations themselves - are a clear attempt to undermine his leadership and damage his party's prospects in Eastleigh. Hence the strongly-worded denial that he was involved in any cover-up. And many believe that the allegations against the Cardinal have been publicised now in order to hasten his retirement and remove him from the Conclave.
Cardinal O'Brien wouldn't be the first 'spiritual director' to abuse his position of power: the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has a long and sordid history of doing preciselty that. Lord Rennard wouldn't be the first 'senior politician' to abuse his position of power: the Liberals, Conservatives and Socialists all have their predatory perverts.
There's something about power in politics and religion which is irresistable, principally because its application produces results. When you put together authority and charisma, you have influence. When the elite exercise that over those who are beholden or dependent, there may be healthy respect or fear, and you arrive at a potential system of abuse. It is a culture we have inherited: power controls us, sometimes in deleterious ways. The only solution is greater accountability and enhanced transparency in community. There should be devolution and a separation of powers. The elite should certainly not be permitted to judge in their own cause, for that is likely only to lead to further abuse and cover-up.
One of the complainants against the Cardinal was just 18 at the time of the alleged abuse. He has said that he was too frightened to report the incident, and became depressed. He was ordained, but resigned when Keith O'Brien was promoted to bishop in the mid-1980s: "I knew then he would always have power over me," the victim says. "It was assumed I left the priesthood to get married. I did not. I left to preserve my integrity."
What potential did the Roman Catholic Church lose in this young man? A great priest? An inspirational bishop? A future pope?
We will never know.