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Twice a whistleblower: The former priest whose story unleashed a global scandal

Brian Devlin said he was compelled to write the book. Picture by Sandy McCook
Brian Devlin said he was compelled to write the book. Picture by Sandy McCook

Brian Devlin wanted to be a priest, not an author.

The book he has written was one he felt compelled to write but wished he didn’t have to.

However, he has no regrets about going into print.

In the same way he has no regrets about going public with revelations which helped bring down the most senior Catholic clergyman in Britain.

A global scandal

Mr Devlin was one of four men who helped expose Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s sexual misconduct.

And when they felt the Catholic Church hierarchy attempted a cover-up, they went to the media, unleashing a story that caused a global scandal.

‘Cardinal Sin’ focuses on the abuse of power within the Church and sets out ways the leadership could change and avoid future shame.

Mr Devlin was training for the priesthood at the Drygrange seminary in the Borders from 1978 when he first encountered Keith O’Brien, its spiritual director.

He regarded the charismatic O’Brien as a teacher and mentor, but also a friend.

Until he abused his trust.

“Looking back, he was constantly grooming me”, said Devlin, a former NHS Highland communications manager.

The book recounts incidents when O’Brien slid his hand inside the trainee’s shirt, rubbing his naked skin.

He also rubbed Devlin’s arms and thigh in the front seat of his car while driving students home.

On another occasion he ended night prayer by giving Devlin a hug and then pulled him down onto his knee and began caressing him and told him he loved him.

Devlin said the abuse of power had a lasting impact and that he felt “something had been stolen from me”.

 Looking back he was constantly grooming me.”

Brian Devlin

“He never raped me. He never sexually molested me. But I felt totally uncomfortable with what was going on”, he said.

“It was quite clear to me that he wanted to have an intimate relationship with me. I was not prepared for that.”

‘I had no one to tell’

After that incident Mr Devlin said he went to bed, but woke to find O’Brien standing beside him: “He looked haggard and said ‘I meant every word I said, but I’m sorry for what I did.’

“At that moment I strongly suspected he had done that before. It was the start of a period of time that was very dark for me.”

He felt he could not tell anyone what happened: “I had no one to tell. I wanted to be a Catholic priest more than anything else and I didn’t want to get kicked out.

“He had all the power. I had zero power.”

Mr Devlin was ordained as a priest in 1985.

But he quit some months later when O’Brien was appointed Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh shortly afterwards, knowing he could not work with him.

Brian Devlin said he has no regrets about going public. Picture by Sandy McCook

“One of the most taboo things you can do is leave the Catholic priesthood. It’s a massive thing that destroys families and people’s lives. I broke a lot of hearts, but I had to do it.”

Years later, a friend told him O’Brien had been reported for making unwanted advances towards another priest in Rome.

His friend told him he and two others, all priests, had also been abused by O’Brien.

The four men decided to make an official complaint via the Church authorities.

“We wanted to find out what the Church’s response would be. That response was largely silent.”

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, O’Brien was to be among the conclave of cardinals to elect Pope Francis.

Why did the whistleblowers go public?

“We had someone who we knew to be a sexual predator and abuser of power potentially going to the Vatican to choose the next Pope”, said Mr Devlin.

“When we saw Keith O’Brien on TV all upbeat, talking about casting his vote, that was the signal that turned everything for us. We said ‘there is no way we can allow this to happen’.”

The four whistleblowers took the ‘nuclear option’ and went public.

The story was broken by journalist and Press and Journal columnist Catherine Deveney, and reverberated around the world.

The furore led to O’Brien withdrawing from the papal election and he later resigned.

He died in 2018.

If we had not gone public, the whole thing would have been covered up.”

Devlin said: “We exhausted every internal mechanism there was and we kept hitting buffers. We kept on being thwarted.

“If we had not gone public then the whole thing would have been covered up. I have zero regrets for going public.”

‘A global story of shame’

He said the Church’s failure to act on the revelations led him to write the book, which is published by Columba Books.

“When we blew this story open about Cardinal Keith O’Brien, I felt that was enough to do.

“It became a global story of shame for the Catholic Church in Scotland.

“I expected big changes, more humility, more involvement of lay people and a lot more listening from bishops and archbishops. But that’s clearly not happened.

“I was compelled to write the book because of the observations I was having that nothing was changing. But I didn’t want to have to write it.”

If we had not gone public the whole thing would have been covered up.”

He said he felt genuine sorrow for O’Brien and would have forgiven him if asked: “Here was an old, gay man who was as much a product of the Church as anyone sitting in the pews.

“But he had behaved in an atrocious way. His duty of care was to his priests and he abused that.

“I feel sorrow for the man. Sorry that he suffered the fate he did. But he was the author of his own downfall.”

Church needs to be ‘more transparent and accountable’

Devlin said the situation “altered the whole trajectory of my life”.

He said: “It caused a lot of pain in my family and for me.

“I ended up fine. But the Catholic Church did nothing for me when I left the priesthood. It isolated me and shunned me. But I got on and made a life for myself.”

The book, he said, seeks to be understanding and compassionate, while calling for an investigation into abusive behaviour and for the Church to be more transparent and accountable.

“We have to work out why priests start behaving the way they do. In the book, I’m trying to offer rational and, on the face of it, easily done remedies to make things better for the Catholic Church.

“It’s up to them now.”

Cardinal Keith O’Brien

He said the celibate, single-sex priesthood is a “danger” to the Church and needs to be dismantled, while the exclusion of women from the ministry should end.

“If your priesthood is exclusively male, or there is no role for women in policy making, then it’s going to end in catastrophe.”

Recently, Mr Devlin has helped whistleblowing doctors who went public with accusations of bullying at NHS Highland.

The health board has since apologised and a ‘healing process’ was launched.

‘Outrage and denial’

But he said initial reactions to the accusations from both organisations were “mirror images”, including outrage and denial.

“Both the Church and the health organisation were failed by those in positions of leadership. It wasn’t the laity that poisoned the Catholic Church. It was the bishops and cardinals.

“In the health organisation, it wasn’t the patients or the frontline staff who corrupted the culture. It was the leadership.”