ON THE VERGE OF HIS GREATEST triumph—ordination as the Roman Catholic Church’s Bishop of Argyll and the Isles in Scotland—Roderick Wright was a nervous wreck. “He was chain-smoking,” remembers Father Sean MacAuley, a friend of 30 years who was with him on that January morning in 1991. “He seemed exhausted and very apprehensive.” The night before, says MacAuley, “he expressed serious fears about becoming a bishop.”
As well he might have. Wright, who 32 years before had taken a vow of priestly celibacy, was leading a passionate double life for more than a decade—one that began to unravel on Sept. 4, the day he disappeared from his parish home next to St. Columba’s Cathedral in the seaside resort town of Oban. That same day, Kathleen MacPhee, a 41-year-old nurse, also disappeared from her home in nearby Fort William. When her distraught 15-year-old daughter, Julie Ann, began weeping in school—and told her guidance counselor that her mother had run off with Wright—the story of the bishop’s affair with MacPhee was out.
The resulting scandal profoundly embarrassed the Catholic Church and delighted Fleet Street—which dubbed Wright “Randy Roddy” and the “Bonking Bishop.” Though Wright, 56, resigned his post Sept. 15, the furor over his behavior has if anything grown in recent days rather than abated. Shortly after Wright’s relationship with MacPhee became public, another woman, Joanne Whibley, 48, told the the BBC that she too had had an affair with Wright, in the late 70s—and had a son, Kevin, now 15, to show for it. At that point, Wright sold his story to the tabloid News of the World for five figures, with the money earmarked for MacPhee’s three children.
Meanwhile, Wright’s ex-housekeeper revealed she had seen sexually explicit love letters to Wright linking him to two other women—one of them rumored to be a monsignor’s niece. Wright and MacPhee, last spotted in Dordogne, France, are still in hiding, but back in Oban, his former parishioners are reeling. “He was really well-respected,” says James McLellan, 72. “[But] he would always refer to himself as a sinner.”
For Wright, apparently, occasions of sin occurred early. One of of five children born to a seaman and a home-maker in Glasgow, Wright was a young curate in the Scottish highland town of Fort William when he was assigned to instruct Joanne Whibley, a Protestant who was planning to marry a Catholic. They began an affair, Whibley claims, after her marriage plans collapsed and continued it when she moved to London, meeting secretly in hotels. In 1981 she bore him a son, but Wright insisted she keep their affair quiet. “He said he couldn’t acknowledge me or Kevin,” Whibley told the BBC. “He had a career.”
Whibley, now a part-time social worker, had by then moved to England’s East Sussex, and Wright, she says, visited sporadically and wrote guilt-filled letters. None of which has assuaged his son’s sense of rejection. “I haven’t seen him for more than two months all put together in my whole life,” Kevin, now a prefect at a nearby school, told the BBC. “I feel angry at the loss of a father.”
In 1990, Wright told the News of the World, he began counseling Kathleen MacPhee, a former parishioner he had known since the 70s. He helped her through her 1990 divorce and a 1992 battle with cervical cancer, and their friendship deepened to the point where this past summer MacPhee left her two teenage children, Julie Ann and Donald, 18 (son Stephen, 26, lives on his own), in the care of her sister in order to be with Wright. “It developed into something we both recognized as love,” Wright explained to the. News, while MacPhee said, “He was the man I loved. He could have been a dustman or a plumber. That would have been easier. But he was a bishop.”
It would certainly have been easier in his diocese, whose 12,000 Catholics and 30 priests are still trying to make sense of the havoc Wright has wrought. “He was a good, compassionate shepherd,” says Pat Venters, an elderly volunteer at St. Columba’s. “His heart was with his flock.” Aside from sex, Wright’s longtime friend Father MacAuley says the bishop “lived a very monastic lifestyle. He was a frugal sort of man, and he hated any show.” In hindsight, says MacAuley, “the job may have been too big for him. He was so highly thought of, so revered.” James McLellan agrees: “I don’t think he thought he was worthy.”
And apparently he was not. Yet those who knew him in Oban are loath to condemn him. “He gave a lot of good in his life,” says Venters. “We can’t judge. Only God can judge.”
NINA A. BIDDLE in Oban and SIMON PERRY in East Sussex