A canny leader with a gentle touch

A canny leader with a gentle touch

As Archbishop of Westminster for nearly a decade, 2000 until 2009, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor began his term of office embroiled in a major scandal over an abuser priest, but rode through it to become a much-loved public figure in Britain, known for his soft Irish lilt, jovial good humour, and deep compassion.

He was well known in Rome, which he had grown to know and feel at home in while studying there in the 1950s and where he later returned, in the 1970s, to run the Venerable English College as rector. He spoke Italian fluently and with brio, albeit with an unmistakably English accent, and as cardinal sat on a number of significant Vatican bodies, including those in charge of finance and bishops.

A moderate, cautious reformer, in the conclaves of 2005 and 2013 he was part of a group of senior European archbishops around Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan seeking reform of the Roman Curia and a more collegiate, pastoral direction for the Church. After 2001 he came to know the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, and was active in 2013 in urging his fellow cardinals to consider him for Pope.


He stood over six feet tall and hailed from a warm, gregarious middle-class English family of doctors, soldiers and clergy, raised in Reading, west of London. The family was descended from wine merchants in Cork. He liked to share the story of his unusual double-barrelled surname, the result of two children of the same mother with different surnames who set up a wine business together in the early 19th Century.

As a result of his stable and loving home, Murphy-O’Connor was a naturally collegiate and clubbable priest with a wide network of friends. He was sent aged 18 to the English College in Rome for his diocese, Portsmouth, and thrived there, playing rugby and cricket at its villa overlooking Lake Albano. Music was his first love: he was a remarkably good pianist, and always in demand for musicals.

He wasn’t a natural academic, and found the intellectual atmosphere prior to Vatican II stifling and dry. But he was a fast and eager reader who absorbed the currents of the nouvelle théologie, which were regarded with suspicion at the time in Rome. Henri de Lubac and, especially, Yves Congar, would be lifelong theological inspirations.

Inspired by Congar’s vision of parishes reinvigorated by active laypeople meeting in small faith-sharing groups, back in Portsmouth as a young curate he put the idea into practice. While some groups worked better than others, over four years the effect of 250 or so people coming regularly to the groups transformed the parish where he was posted.

The experience deeply marked Murphy-O’Connor, who became convinced that the Church needed to be a living community if it were to bring faith alive and meet the deep needs of both priests and lay people. As bishop of two dioceses, he would put small groups at the centre of his renewal programme.

The young priest eagerly followed the Second Vatican Council, and as private secretary to Portsmouth’s energetic reforming bishop, Derek Worlock, in the late 1960s, lived through the whirlwind that followed, including the Humanae Vitae drama. In his memoir, An English Spring, he recalls that “the issue for me was always, the Church has spoken: Now how do I help my bishop communicate its teaching and to interpret it pastorally and with compassion and sensitivity as best we could.”

His own conviction was that Paul VI was right to emphasise the inseparable connection of the unitive and procreation of sexuality at the heart of marriage. Later he would reflect that the teaching might have been better framed if the bishops at the Second Vatican Council had ruled on it, rather than being left to a special commission which the Pope felt he had to contradict. But he remained convinced that it was a prophetic document, to be built on rather than opposed.

Delegated to speak on behalf of the priests of England and Wales at the 1969 synod in Rome, he found himself after “a rush of blood to the head” calling (“in terrible Latin”) for the Church to consider the ordination of married men. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he would loyally refrain from returning to the issue, but he never abandoned his view that it should be considered.

Appointed its rector in 1971, he returned to Rome to steer the English College through a turbulent period. Rather like Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the Colegio Máximo in the same period in Buenos Aires, he charted a middle path between reformists and reactionaries, implementing change prudently, restoring the college’s stability and prestige.


As bishop of the English southern diocese of Arundel & Brighton from 1977, he implemented the American ‘Renew’ programme across his diocese, leading to, at one stage, thousands of people meeting in weekly groups. He was close to his priests, and a popular pastor, quick to forgive but not always good at following through on his many ideas.

Because Gatwick Airport was in his diocese, Bishop Murphy-O’Connor was designated to receive Pope John Paul II on his arrival in 1982 for what turned out to be a magnificent five-day visit, including a historic visit to Canterbury Cathedral for joint prayer with its Archbishop, Robert Runcie.

It was a time of optimism about reconciliation between the two Churches, and Murphy-O’Connor, a passionate ecumenicist, came to play a leading role from that year as co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

But while ARCIC produced ground-breaking documents, the ecumenical ship was holed beneath the waterline by the Church of England’s 1992 decision to ordain women. Murphy-O’Connor was deeply disappointed by this decision, but remained committed, throughout his life, to the search for Christian Unity, which he would describe as a “road without exit”.

He was chosen as Archbishop of Westminster following the death of Cardinal Basil Hume in 1999, and made a cardinal in February 2001, along with Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. By then, he was at the centre of a media storm over his handling of an abuser priest back in the 1980s.


As Bishop of Arundel and Brighton he had responded to complaints of abuse by Michael Hill by sending him – in accordance with the practice of the time – to receive therapeutic treatment. When his doctors warned that Hill was at high risk of re-offending, Murphy-O’Connor took away Hill’s licence to preach and for a time the priest took a job outside the Church.

But later, in 1985, Hill begged forgiveness and to be allowed a second chance. Murphy-O’Connor took the fatal decision to make him chaplain to Gatwick Airport, believing he would have no contact there with minors. Hill went on to abuse.

This all came under the media spotlight in 2000, shortly after Murphy-O’Connor’s appointment to Westminster. Hill had been convicted and jailed three years earlier, but the BBC learned the details of civil claims against the priest after Murphy-O’Connor was appointed to Westminster. Convinced that they could bring about his resignation, the BBC’s flagship morning radio news show, Today, was relentless.

In the midst of the storm he did consider resigning, but concluded that it was better to stay and put in place guidelines to ensure such mistakes could not happen again. Responding to the outcry, he announced he was establishing a commission under a respected retired judge, Lord Nolan, who in turn appointed an independent panel.

After six months, they made 83 recommendations, including lay oversight in parishes and an independent oversight agency. In their scope and thoroughness, the so-called ‘Nolan Guidelines’ put the Church in England and Wales ahead of the Church elsewhere in Europe, and of almost every other British institution.

In 2002, following the scandals in Boston, the BBC returned to the attack, convinced there would be more smoking guns and a pattern of cover-up and denial. But having reviewed his own record and knowing the allegations were false, Murphy-O’Connor this time fought back and won. He could now concentrate on the renewal programme in his diocese, again based on the model of faith-sharing groups.

Reflecting on what he called his “shame and anguish,” Murphy-O’Connor’s 2015 memoir candidly picks over the reasons behind his failure to have acted properly against Hill: Coming from a secure and happy family, he was slow to grasp the impact of abuse, and as a bishop was inclined to want to protect and forgive his priests. Church guidelines are necessary, he wrote, “because this protective instinct is so strong”.


Between 2001 and 2006 he was part of an off-the-radar group of European heavyweight cardinals around Cardinal Martini meeting regularly in St Gallen in Switzerland. Increasingly concerned at what they saw as the Roman Curia’s high-handedness and distance from pastoral realities, the eight or nine cardinals saw the group as a forum for the kind of collegiality no longer permitted by Rome.

In 2005, following the death of St John Paul II, the St Gallen group sought a pastoral reformer in the mould of Martini, and believed Bergoglio was that man. According to an anonymous cardinal’s diary later that year, Bergoglio attracted 40 votes (presumably from both European reformers and Latin-Americans) before pleading with the cardinals not to vote for him. After 2006, with Martini seriously ill, the St Gallen group no longer met.

Murphy-O’Connor was increasingly a public figure in Britain. He formed a warm partnership with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, with whom he issued a joint warning against going to war in Iraq in 2003. Together they made a joint pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 2006. He was also at the centre of major events and tragedies such as the terrorist attacks in July 2005. He held regular meetings with Muslim leaders, believing they could learn from the Catholic experience of integration into British society after a long period of marginalisation.

Migrants’ Mass

He also presided over the first migrants’ Mass at Westminster Cathedral in 2006, which became an annual fixture. In his homily he called for the regularisation of long-term undocumented migrants, whose plight was at the time ignored in British public opinion. “It was one of those occasions,” he recalls in his memoir, “when I felt the Gospel spring into life in all its vibrancy and generosity.”

Perhaps the biggest public-policy issue he faced was over the 12 Catholic adoption agencies, which in April 2007 fell afoul of new equality legislation making it illegal to refuse adoption on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The cardinal pleaded for an exemption for the agencies, which made up less than 5% of the sector but were highly valued for their ethos. In phone calls to the prime minister, Tony Blair, he argued that allowing them to continue was a valuable contribution to the common good.

Blair – who after standing down as prime minister would be later received into the Catholic Church by Murphy-O’Connor – was sympathetic, but his cabinet was not, and no exemption was granted. The agencies were forced to close or secularise.

Murphy-O’Connor was furious, and later regretted not having taken the matter to the High Court. In a major lecture in 2007, he argued that religious convictions on the ground of conscience were crucial to democracy, which was poorer without them.

He retired as archbishop in 2009, the first Archbishop of Westminster not to die in office, and was appointed to two congregations in Rome: For bishops and the evangelisation of peoples. He liked to joke that it was a consolation prize for not being able to join the House of Lords, as the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, wanted him to.

Murphy-O’Connor had come to know Bergoglio well from cardinals’ gatherings in Rome, when they were usually seated together, along with three others, a group the English cardinal nicknamed la squadra, or ‘the team.’ He became convinced that Bergoglio was the one to lead the Church in a more pastoral and synodal direction and to reform the curia, without which change would be impossible.

Learning from the way Joseph Ratzinger’s backers had promoted him in the pre-conclave meetings and dinners in 2005, Murphy-O’Connor with other former St Gallen members set about doing the same for Bergoglio in the days leading up to the conclave of 2013. Unable to vote as an over-80, he was delighted when the Argentine emerged on the balcony.

Murphy-O’Connor spent his last years mostly at his home in west London, from where he left for Rome to take part in meetings of the two Vatican congregations. He remained a confidant of Pope Francis, who sought his advice, and was genuinely excited about the pontificate, and what he saw as its reconnecting with the vision of the Church that had so fired him as a young priest.

He was warm, funny and wise, in many ways a canny leader, with a disarming humility and a gentle touch – a party-loving Irishman yet very English in his deceptively understated ways. We will miss him.

Catholic journalist and commentator Austen Ivereigh is a former press secretary to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.