Catholics contemplate `can of worms'

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The Independent Online
The "can of worms" that is the Bishop Wright scandal may hold further unpleasant surprises, a leading Scottish Catholic warned yesterday.

The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, the Most Rev Keith O'Brien, was speaking after revelations that Bishop Roderick Wright, who last week fled from his post accompanied by one woman, Kathleen Macphee, and then turned out to have a 15-year-old son by another, Joanna Whibley, had also been accused three years ago of a relationship with a third, whose name the Archbishop has forgotten.

Dr O'Brien said yesterday: "There's always the possibility of other revelations. This Roddy Wright has had a weakness with regard to sexuality. When one opens a can of worms, one just doesn't realise what's at the bottom of it."

Cardinal Thomas Winning, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, also revealed yesterday that he and "a senior colleague" had questioned Bishop Wright, 56, three years ago about allegations that he had had an affair with a woman. The cardinal said he could no longer remember the name of the woman in question, but that when he confronted Bishop Wright, "We received a categorical denial, and a guarantee that not only was it untrue, but it was scurrilous".

The cardinal said he now felt "doubly abandoned ... betrayed and let down" by Bishop Wright. But there had been nothing the church could do in the face of his denials.

Dr O'Brien later confirmed to BBC's Newsnight that he was the "senior colleague" who took the allegation from a woman parishioner in Argyll and the Isles to Cardinal Winning three years ago and together they confronted Bishop Wright: "As the cardinal has said, we believed the man...he promised us he would lead an upright life.

Dr O'Brien said that he was the last person in authority to speak to the missing clergyman, last Sunday night, when Bishop Wright revealed that when he was on the point of refusing the appointment of Bishop "three times he had his hand on the telephone to contact the nuncio, and three times his courage failed him. Having said yes, he didn't say no."

Archbishop O'Brien quashed earlier suggestions that Bishop Wright might return to the ministry, saying his first responsibility was to his child and the mother: "If you want to be a priest, well you just basically can't be a priest. You must fulfil that responsibility to the child."

As speculation mounted that there might be still further revelations about Bishop Wright's past, including suggestions that he had been involved with two other women, his brother Donald Wright told ITN's News at Ten he was devastated by the disclosures. Wiping tears from his eyes, he said he could offer "to all my relations and friends, my nearest and dearest, my heartfelt sorrow and shame, and the same applies really to all the Catholics in Britain".

Ms Whibley was reported to have said that she still loves Bishop Wright, describing him to a friend as an "honest, decent, genuine, caring man", but one with an ability to compartmentalise his life. "One day he would be loving and caring - on another day he would deny the existence of his son." And attention is now focusing on the possibility that church funds may have been used to support Ms Whibley, 48, and her son Kevin. When the Bishop of Galway, the Right Rev Eamon Casey, was discovered to have a 17-year-old son four years ago, he turned out to have paid pounds 70,000 in support from a secret diocesan fund over the child's lifetime.

However, church sources maintained that the pounds 2,000 cheque that Ms Whibley recently received from the bishop was the fruits of an insurance policy he had taken out when their child was born.

Ms Whibley spent yesterday under siege from more than 30 journalists and photographers at her Sussex home. She suggested that the church set up a telephone hotline for women who had had children by priests, rather than waiting for the media to flush them out.

A support group for priests who resigned their ministry to marry said that they were still not allowed to advertise their presence in the official Catholic Directory, despite being led to believe by Cardinal Basil Hume that this would be possible 18 months ago.

The priest who celebrated Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral yesterday lunchtime spoke of the "body blow" dealt to the Catholic Church by the scandal surrounding Bishop Wright, writes Clare Garner, and prayed for the mother and son. Fr Daniel Cronin, chancellor of the central London diocese, said: "No one in the cathedral today can be unaware of the body blow we have all received as further revelations were disclosed. Our hearts and sympathy went out to mother and son who have been betrayed and badly treated."

Fr Cronin described Bishop Wright as a "shepherd [who had] wandered out into the mist" and called on his congregation not to "recriminate or throw stones". "Neither is it a time to lose our nerve in any way," he added.

Certainly, none of his congregation had lost their nerve about the validity of the celibacy law. Parishioners felt that under no circumstances should the rule be relaxed and provided a number of reasons why.

Tim Cox, 59, a commodity trader, said: "The fact that one man or several men or as many men as it takes make mistakes or don't come up to expectations doesn't mean to say the expectations shouldn't be there any more ... I don't personally feel that a married priest can give - what's the jargon phrase? - good, quality time to his parish."

Peter Hancock, 64, described himself as a "good, obedient" Catholic. "I'm totally in favour of priests and celibacy, totally opposed to the Pill and totally support the present Pope and his views," he said.

William Arbuckle, 36, believed Bishop Wright's case was an exception for which the church could not accept responsibility. "If one guy in the City decides to get into fraud you can't blacklist his whole family ... It's the same with politics. You can't hold a party responsible for one member's outspoken views. Likewise, the Catholic Church can't be held responsible for one person's actions."

Frances Ode-Sarpong, who is in her 40s, said celibacy was "a good way to surrender yourself to Christ". "He [Christ] never slept with anyone. If you want to follow his footsteps I think you have to be celibate. It's compulsory ... If you're weak you don't have to take up the priesthood. They know what they are letting themselves in for and they aren't forced to do it."

But a nun expressed her exasperation with the media furore, saying: "As soon as anybody falls it hits the headlines. Go and look at the thousands and thousands who don't."

Leading article, page 13

Saturday story, page 16