Cardinal Sin is the memoir of whistleblower and former priest Brian Devlin, a victim of the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien. From 1985 to 2013, O’Brien was one of Scotland’s highest-ranking clergymen. A vocal opponent of homosexuality, which he famously described as a “moral degradation,” he was later exposed as having had inappropriate and predatory sexual relationships with seminarians and other priests.
On a superficial level, Cardinal Sin could simply be described as a memoir of abuse—abuse of power, sexual abuse, and an institution designed to protect those who abuse. But on every page of this intimate and self-aware account, there is wit, insight, and humanity in abundance. This is not just the story of how the crimes of O’Brien came to be exposed, but also the story of how a Christian man tried to do good in a world where it would have been easier for him to do nothing.
Cardinal Sin begins with Devlin’s childhood and formation journey. Devlin’s matter-of-fact writing style makes this book easy and surprisingly pleasant to consume, despite the gravity of its subject matter. Devlin’s commentary on Catholic culture, and his own place in it is astute, and there were times I laughed out loud at his pithy, sometimes self-deprecating observations. As Devlin journeys through seminary and meets the man who begins to groom him, instead of demonizing O’Brien, Devlin humanizes him. Cardinal Keith O’Brien is not presented as a monster but as a real person unwilling or unable to acknowledge his own darkness and human frailty.
What I found particularly heartbreaking was that after O’Brien attempts to instigate a sexual relationship with Devlin in seminary, Devlin manages to stop him but lacks the agency and even the vocabulary to articulate what’s been happening to him. Devlin was clearly a victim of long-term grooming, but even if he wanted to tell someone about O’Brien, who would have listened to him at the time? This book offers insight into how and why victims of abuse can’t always come forward right away, even when they know they have been victimized. It’s only in hindsight that Devlin could process the spiritual stranglehold O’Brien had over him.
Devlin offers much insight into why Catholic culture was so conducive to protecting abusers like O’Brien. The unquestioned deference and obedience automatically awarded to priests, along with a hierarchy that puts these mortal men on a pedestal, and a turgid disciplinary procedure dissuade victims from coming forward. As the book progresses, we see Devlin and a small group of O’Brien’s other victims try to instigate official proceedings against O’Brien. The second half of the book gave me a great sense of the slowness and drudgery that this type of action entails. Life moves on all around Devlin while he simultaneously butts heads with the Vatican bureaucracy. One can only commend Devlin’s courage in waiving his right to anonymity for the sake of a better Church.
The real tragedy of Cardinal Sin does not lie entirely in Cardinal O’Brien’s abuse but also in the fact that in any institution where predators and groomers feel comfortable, better men, like Brian Devlin, feel innately uncomfortable. Brian Devlin’s ministry continued long after he left the priesthood. He spent his life after leaving the priesthood courageously advocating for the marginalized, such as homeless HIV and AIDs sufferers on the streets of Edinburgh in the 80s and 90s, and the disabled, such as those experiencing deafness like himself. He later worked in Scotland’s health care system. Without a doubt, the loss of Devlin as a priest made the Catholic Church in Scotland poorer.
Cardinal Sin is a must-read for anyone interested in how the Catholic Church can prevent sexual abuse and what healthy institutions can do to support whistleblowers and victims.
Image: Cardinal Keith O’Brien, 2010. (c) Mazur/thepapalvisit.org.uk. NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Sara Scarlett Willson was born and raised in the Middle East and studied politics and international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. She now works as a journalist and author.