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Obituary: Roddy Wright

  • Greg Watts

Roddy Wright will be remembered for very different reasons. To some, he will always be the Catholic bishop who ran way with a divorcee. To others, he will be a man whose 30 years in the priesthood were marked by a kindness, generosity and concern for those in Scotland whom he served.

The son of a merchant seaman and one of four children, Wright was born into a Glasgow working class Catholic family in 1940. It was the example of the priests he met and the exciting stories of missionaries in foreign lands that drew Wright to the priesthood. At the age of fourteen he began studies at Blairs College junior seminary before entering senior seminary at St Peter's College, Cardross, in 1958.

Following ordination in 1964, he was appointed to St Laurence's in Drumchapel, a large housing estate in west Glasgow. He soon showed that he had a knack for being able to understand the concerns of his parishioners. He particularly found the time he spent in the confessional very rewarding "A good confessor is a good listener, a spiritual person, not a cold judge," he said.

In 1968 he moved to St Jude's in Barlanark, another tough area, in east Glasgow. When Pope Paul VI published Humane Vitae, reaffirming the Church's opposition to artificial contraception, in the same year, Wright admitted to being dismayed. His time at Drumchapel and Barlanark, he said, instilled in him "an awareness of the effects of injustice and poverty, which condemns some good people to a hopeless situation in life with little chance of i improvement."

After a spell on the teaching staff at Blairs College, he was appointed to Our Lady and St Mun's, Dunoon, on the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll. He also acted as a chaplain to the US Navy base at Holy Loch, and he was delighted when he was asked to join the crew of the USS Canopus on a three-day voyage.

In 1976 he was appointed to St Mary's, Fort William, one of Scotland's most popular tourist areas. The locals nicknamed him "Starsky" after the character in the popular American TV cop series. Four years later, he was put in charge of the 350 parishioners of St Michael's, Ardkenneth, South Uist. Although they were scattered over a large area, he soon got to know them all and appreciate their traditional island culture. During this time, he served on the education committee of the Western Isles Council and on the management committee of Co-Chomunn an lochdair, a co-operative. He loved Uist and was disappointed in 1986 he was told that he would have to leave to become parish priest at St Anne's, Corpach, on the mainland. When he was asked to become bishop of Argyll and the Isles, he reluctantly accepted, hiding a guilty secret: that he had a nine-year-old son, born in England in 1981 to a woman he had met when he was at Fort William.

In January 1991 in St Columba's Cathedral, Oban, he was consecrated bishop of a diocese in financial trouble. Despite never having liked administration, he started to enjoy his new role. Yet he missed the pastoral contact of parish life and often felt lonely, despite being surrounded by people. That year, he began visiting Kathleen MacPhee, a mother of three whose marriage of nineteen years had collapsed, when she was seriously ill in hospital. Wright had first met her at Fort William when he conducted the funeral of her baby. Their friendship deepened and MacPhee moved into a house next to the cathedral.

"I am sure that friends and family noticed a change in me at this time. Looking back, I realise I was becoming distant and losing contact with those who had supported me over the years," Wright later said. In September 1996 it was reported that he had gone missing. He had, in fact, moved into a cottage in Kendal, Cumbria, with MacPhee. Wright phoned Archbishop Keith O'Brien and told him he was resigning and the next day confirmed this in a meeting with Cardinal Thomas Winning.

The media descended on the small Lake District town. Wright and Macphee agreed to sell their story to a Sunday tabloid, who whisked them off to France to do an exclusive interview. Wright travelled under the name of David Jansen (the actor in the TV series The Fugitive). When they returned to the Cumbria, Wright visited the local Job Centre to find that he was not entitled to claim any benefits.

They were married in a civil ceremony in Antigua in June 1998. The registrar was a Methodist lay preacher and the only guests were the three maids who cleaned their rooms. The pair emigrated to New Zealand in 1998. Roddy Wright, priest and former bishop, was born on June 28 1940. He died on May 23 2005, aged 65.


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