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The life and times of Bishop Wright

Once he was a model priest, now they say he betrayed his church. Keith Nuthall and Michael Streeter report

Keith Nuthall,Michael Streeter
Sunday 22 September 1996 00:02 BST

Four years ago in the little Highland village of Inverlochy, local people became accustomed to seeing a blue Volkswagen Passat parked outside a small stone cottage. Roderick Wright, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, was visiting a nurse and divorcee called Kathleen MacPhee.

Few in the village passed comment, at least not outside the privacy of their own homes, although occasionally the remark was made: "I see the bishop's car is there again." And that was it.

In the past 10 days the news of the bishop's affairs with at least two women - one of them Ms MacPhee - has seemed to strike like a bolt from the blue. Catholics in the diocese and throughout Britain have been shocked; cardinals have appeared on television in a state close to despair and Pope John Paul II, who is sick and struggling through an exceptionally difficult visit to France, has had to be kept informed. The affair threatens to cause lasting damage to theCatholic Church in this country.

But in Inverlochy and the nearby town of Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, there was no great surprise. Mark Linfield, 38, born and bred in Fort William, said: "Most people knew about it. They knew there was a close relationship. He was known as a bit of a hunk. It was unusual: priests don't usually go round having relationships."

A Fort William woman, who did not want to be named, agreed. "They've been sitting on it for years. It was known that there was a close friendship."

Roderick Wright, as even the Pope now knows, was living a lie. In fact he was living two lies - also concealing his earlier relationship with Joanna Whibley, and the existence of their 15-year-old son, Kevin. And the Church hierarchy, wounded and angry at the headlines about the "bonking bishop" and "randy Roddy", cannot be sure that the lies end there.

The affair has provoked debate about clerical celibacy and the integrity of the hierarchy, but what the Church overwhelmingly feels, from Scotland's Cardinal Thomas Winning down, is that this has been a cruel deception by one man - a betrayal. How, they ask, can a trusted and popular churchman have told so many lies for so long?

When Roderick Wright was a young priest he was nicknamed "Starsky". With his regular good looks, his dark hair and his black leather jacket, it seems he bore some resemblance to the television cop played by Paul Michael Glaser in the 1970s. It was not, perhaps, a very priestly label, but it reflected the informality of his manner, and it was affectionate. Wherever he worked and visited his flock, Father Wright was known as a jovial, hardworking and very personable young cleric. In particular, he was known as somebody who would always look to do you a good turn.

"He is a kind person and he makes friends easily. He is easy to talk to with a good sense of humour," said a close friend, who asked not to be named. "Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps people were able to get too close to him because he was so easy to be with ... things got misconstrued and got out of hand."

The young priest was a Glaswegian, born in 1940, with an unusual background which ultimately was to draw him to the diocese from which he has now resigned. His parents were brought up on neighbouring islands of the Western Isles - South Uist and Eriskay - each separately leaving for Glasgow for work, where they met, fell in love and married.

Roderick's father, Andrew, was not a native islander, having been "boarded- out" from Edinburgh before the First World War: a social experiment practised by Scottish city corporations until the 1960s.

Orphans and children of poor or homeless families were moved to new homes in the north and west of Scotland, and told not to speak or write to the parents they had left behind in the Lowlands. All they kept of their past was their name - in this case Wright.

Roddy Wright was clearly deeply affected by his father's upbringing, and it gave him a strong feeling for the Western Isles. Before his disappearance he said: "I know very, very little about my paternal family. My father married into a big South Uist family and I can trace my mother's ancestry back to Clanranald, back to the Middle Ages. But not so my father's. The island of Eriskay cared for him, as the islands cared for so many others."

By modern standards, Bishop Wright had an unconventional but loving family background. The Wrights had four other children, another boy and three girls. They grew up in a two-room-and-kitchen flat in Kinning Park, Glasgow, part of a large community of western islanders that is an established and distinct section of the Glasgow population.

They clung to their traditions: speaking Gaelic at home and playing shinty - the Highland form of hockey. Many had come to Strathclyde to find work in the merchant navy, building on the seafaring traditions of their homelands.

"They tend to socialise together," said one local. "They have their Highlander Institute and their ceilidhs. They tend to be softly spoken and inoffensive. They don't tend to cause trouble or fights. Quite a few of them came down to join the police force."

After going to school at St Gerard's, Glasgow - now a comprehensive, but then a senior secondary school for brighter pupils - Roddy began his training for the priesthood at Blairs seminary, Aberdeenshire. Although there was no great family tradition of entering the priesthood, the Wrights were devout and it caused no surprise that this young man felt that he had a vocation.

He was a conscientious student if not, according to Church sources, an academically inspired one, but he duly moved on from Blairs to become assistant priest at the Glaswegian parish churches of St Laurence's, Drumchapel, and St Jude's, Barlanark.

His strength, according to people who know of his work then, was his dedication and ability to get on with people from varying backgrounds in difficult inner-city areas - his own Glasgow background, obviously.

In 1969 he returned to Blairs, where he was spiritual director and procurator in charge of finances for five years. It was in this period that Roddy Wright picked up his "Starsky" nickname. More importantly, it was a bishop's appointment, and a valuable leg-up for an ambitious priest. "The job got him noticed, and he must have done well to stay in that position for so long," said one priest who knew him.

He then requested a move to the diocese of Argyll and the Isles, close to his family roots and where he felt his understanding of the culture and language would be best employed. After a brief spell at Dunoon, he moved to St Mary's in Fort William, again as assistant priest.

His spell here was regarded as a success. Iain MacDonald - like his wife, Olwyn, a local councillor - said last week: "We knew Father Roddy well as a friend. The parish went from strength to strength under his guidance. He took a great interest in the congregation itself and the school and in children and youth work.

"He was jovial. He had the gift of being able to speak to anyone, either - to use old-fashioned expressions - from the high rank or the low rank. He treated everybody the same. He was a priest of the people: the people's priest."

But it was in Fort William, so far as we know, that Father Wright's secret, second life began, because there he met Joanna Whibley. She was a Protestant engaged to a Catholic, and she wished to convert. She was referred to the assistant priest to receive instruction in the Catholic faith.

Her engagement broke down, but she kept in touch with Roddy Wright, even after she moved away to England. They became lovers and their son, Kevin, was born in 1981.

By now Wright's priestly success was bringing rewards: in 1980 he was sent by the Church to St Michael's, Ardkenneth, as parish priest. This was South Uist, his mother's native island, a place to which he felt a strong personal attachment, and it brought out the best in him.

A woman who knew him well during his seven-year stint on South Uist said last week: "People in this community had the highest regard for him and I think that most of them would still have the same feeling." She added: "There was no suggestion of anything untoward going on in his life."

But something untoward was going on. Not only was he a priest with a young son in England, but his relationship with Whibley was not over, at least not in her eyes. Although they saw far less of each other (and Kevin hardly saw his father at all) she continued to believe in his love.

Much has been said in the past week about how common it is for Roman Catholic priests to have relationships, but the truth remains that the moral conflict involved for the priest is extreme, and must usually be borne alone. A great deal of deception - even hypocrisy - is required.

When Kevin was six, Father Wright moved back to the mainland, to a parish near Fort William, and when Kevin was nine, he was nominated to become Bishop of Argyll and the Isles. This elevation, he revealed recently to friends, provoked "great moral turmoil". Three times he dialled the number ofthe papal nuncio, Luigi Barbarito, intending to turn down his nomination, and three times he hung up before getting through. The New Testament echo in the story is clear.

As he wrestled with his conscience, he was probably not thinking of Kevin and Joanna Whibley alone. Exactly when Roderick Wright began his second relationship is unclear, but it is likely that it was before 1990. He had known Kathleen MacPhee for about 20 years, and he counselled her after the break-up of her marriage a decade ago. By the time the Volkswagen Passat became familiar in Inverlochy four years ago, the relationship was well-established.

In 1993, after a complaint from a woman in the diocese, Bishop Wright was confronted by his seniors in the Church. He gave them "categorical" assurances that he had nothing to hide, suggesting that he was the victim of malicious gossip.

Bishop Wright had fathered and left a child; he'd had affairs with at least two women; he was continuing to see one of them and he had told a brazen lie to his superiors. Moreover, it seems he had failed to tell Ms Whibley of Ms MacPhee's existence. He continued to tell her that he could not acknowledge the child as his own, saying that he would be forced to leave Scotland if she revealed the secret, and maybe flee to South America.

This reflects the story of Eamonn Casey, the disgraced former Bishop of Galway. He did leave for South America, to work as a missionary in Ecuador, after it was revealed in May 1992 that he had fathered a child during an affair with an American divorcee in the 1970s.

Interestingly, Bishop Wright commented on that scandal, in hindsight giving some clue to his own dilemma. He said: "I don't see any conflict in terms of faith if married men were ordained."

Whatever his view of celibacy, it was too late. For years Bishop Roddy, a popular, enthusiastic prelate serving a diocese to which he had a deep emotional bond, lived a lie. As a stunned Catholic hierarchy made clear last week, he misled them, he misled his flock and he even misled the women in his life.

It is hardly surprising that it eventually became too much for him. Why he and Ms Macphee disappeared when they did, two weeks ago, is still not known. There has been no suggestion that their affair was about to be exposed by the press or otherwise.

Even the manner of his departure, however, rubbed salt in the wounds of those who knew him. By disappearing, the bishop left the Catholic hierarchy to face all the questions. He also provoked a horrified Ms Whibley to go to the BBC with her story.

Cardinal Winning said he felt "doubly abandoned and betrayed". "I have been so duped by the events of the past few days that I don't know what to believe any more." Mario Conti, the Bishop of Aberdeen, described Roderick Wright's behaviour as "extremely embarrassing".

He said: "As a close friend of his I feel let down that he could not confide in me. Even the IRA warn you when a bomb is about to go off. While we reacted initially with sympathy, that has been giving way to a feeling of anger and incomprehension - the latter because we feel that a man who had that sort of secret should not have been accepting high office in the Church."

The turmoil is certain to continue, until Father Wright emerges from hiding and tells his story, until his future and that of Ms MacPhee are settled, and until - to use a phrase used on Friday by a bewildered prelate - it is certain that there is nothing more at the bottom of this particular can of worms.

But the hierarchy is hoping that, just as the Catholic Church in Ireland survived the Casey affair, so the Church in Scotland will survive this scandal. After all, as a close friend on South Uist who has spoken to Father Wright said yesterday: "Look, he hasn't murdered anyone, or mugged anyone.

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