Editorial: The fine line between justice and a witch-hunt

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It did not take the Vatican long to accept the resignation of the head of the Scottish Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien. With Pope Benedict set to leave office on Thursday, speed was of the essence. But speedy, too, was the Cardinal's recognition that, whatever the strength of the allegations against him – and he has rejected them – the interests of the Church were unlikely to be served by his hanging on until his retirement next month. That judgement was surely right. His resignation was tendered a week ago, although it was only made public yesterday.

Nor will the Cardinal's departure be mourned by all Catholics. Cardinal O'Brien's was one of the most outspoken voices against government plans to legalise gay marriage. His comments on homosexual relationships generally were immoderate and offensive, confirming views of the Catholic hierarchy as harsh, backward-looking and unforgiving. His recent suggestion that some priests should be allowed to marry and have children did little to soften his image as an unreconstructed conservative.

Not all, though, may be as simple as it seems. The resignation of Cardinal O'Brien, who was Britain's most senior Catholic cleric, means that Britain will be unrepresented at the coming papal conclave, which is regrettable. His early departure can also be seen as playing into the campaign being waged by some US Catholics to bar all cardinals implicated in child sex abuse from taking part in the conclave.

The accusations against Cardinal O'Brien, in so far as they have become public, are different, in that they relate to claims of inappropriate advances not towards children, but towards more junior priests. But it is hard to escape the impression that the allegations, which were made more than 20 years after the encounters supposedly took place and in the same week as Pope Benedict's unexpected resignation, were timed to cause maximum damage to the Cardinal's reputation while he was still in office and to the Catholic Church when it was in the public eye.

Which is where a link suggests itself to another set of recent allegations relating to what is being delicately called inappropriate behaviour. If the accusations made against the former chief executive of the Liberal Democratic Party, Lord Rennard, have any foundation – and he has denied them – then his behaviour was clearly unacceptable and his continuation in that office untenable. But the timing of the claims – a week before a high-stakes by-election that the Liberal Democrats, however improbably, appeared set to win and four years after Lord Rennard's retirement – smacks of gamesmanship. Why, it is worth asking, have the allegations surfaced only now, rather than when the alleged impropriety was taking place – or, indeed, any other time than now?

A very partial answer to that question, as to the same question posed by the case of Cardinal O'Brien, is that times have changed – and largely for the better. The disgrace that once attached to someone who complained of harassment, or worse, has diminished, as has the propensity of the establishment for disbelief. That the Catholic Church was riddled with child sex abuse and tried to cover it up is now established as a shameful fact. So is the readiness of some bosses to use sex to exert their power.

Most adults on the receiving end of such behaviour should now both feel able to object, and should do so; abused children should be assured of a more sympathetic hearing than often in the past. Meanwhile, dredging up old allegations for any purpose other than bringing an offender belatedly to book has the unseemly whiff of the witch-hunt.

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