Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a British cardinal who failed to keep an abusive priest away from children and later sought to redeem that failing by overhauling the way clerical child abuse is addressed by the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has died at 85.
The sex scandal that tarnished his career occurred in the Eighties but was only made public in the early 2000s, when a BBC report linked Murphy-O’Connor, then the Archbishop of Westminster, to Michael Hill, a priest who was convicted of sexual abuse.
The report revealed that Murphy-O’Connor was made aware of Hill’s conduct towards children, and was advised that he might re-offend. But rather than inform the police, or transfer him to a post where he would no longer have access to children, Murphy-O’Connor appointed him chaplain at Gatwick Airport. Hill later admitted that four of his many offences happened after his appointment to the airport. Some of the boys he molested were disabled.
Murphy-O’Connor eventually expressed shame and regret at having tried to solve the issue by moving the offending priest to another parish – then a common practice in the Church – though he also continued to evoke mitigating factors to justify his behaviour, and argued that paedophilia was not at the time understood to be addictive. “I should have handed him over to the police,” he said. “But you are talking about the early Eighties. No bishop would have handed over a priest to the police in those days.” In his view, most of the mistakes bishops made came from being “too kind” toward their fellow clergymen.
Murphy-O’Connor was the fifth of six children born to George and Ellen Murphy-O’Connor, who were from Country Cork, in Ireland, and had settled in Reading, England, between the two world wars.
The family was profoundly religious. “To be a Catholic was the most natural, familiar thing in the world,” he later wrote. “I lived, in quite a deep way, the rhythms of Christian life.” Several of his uncles were priests, as were two of his four brothers. “Remember the rock out of which you were hewn,” one uncle used to say at family gatherings, quoting Isaiah. One of his forbears, Daniel Murphy, was the first archbishop of Hobart, Tasmania.
At the age of 18, Murphy-O’Connor left home to begin his studies for the priesthood at the English College in Rome. The city seemed fabulously exciting to him, though he also witnessed extreme post-war poverty there. His…