If anybody ever doubted the necessity for an independent review into child protection procedures inside the Catholic Church in Scotland, every page of the McLellan Report published this week will correct that impression. The report is, in effect, a vote of no confidence in the Scottish bishops’ safeguarding procedures based on their performance so far. Its central charge is that the Scottish Catholic Church for years paid lip service to the need for child protection while the manner in which it treated survivors amounted to further abuse.
Often victims told the commission that they were not listened to, not believed, not told what was happening as a result of a complaint, or made to believe what happened was their own fault. Often they were not apologised to or offered help dealing with the deep personal damage their abuse had caused. These failings made it far worse.
The commission that wrote it was set up under a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr Andrew McLellan, who is a former chief inspector of prisons, and its membership was drawn from all areas of relevant expertise. It is a masterpiece of its kind that deserves to be studied wherever there are similar issues. The problem of good intentions and sound child protection policies not being implemented in practice is almost universal. The Catholic Church in Scotland has a policy document called “Awareness and Safety” which, though the report recommends that it needs revising and rewriting, says many of the right things. But the Scottish bishops failed to close the gap between theory and practice. Many in the Church, including some in senior positions, did not take it seriously or even ignored it altogether.
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has said it accepts all the recommendations, which means, among other things, that they personally will have to undergo training in child protection and be retrained periodically. It means they will have to accept independent oversight of how they run their dioceses with regard to child protection, abide by a set of binding rules, and be held to account if they do not. They will have to listen sincerely and carefully to survivors, to whose needs they must give absolute priority. And they have to place child protection at the centre of the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel. Only then can they begin to regain the lost trust .
There are deeper questions even than those probed by the McLellan commission which remain to be answered. Why were some priests tempted to abuse children; and why did they think they could get away with it? In a clerical culture the power imbalance between an ordained clergyman and a vulnerable child is immense, and even adult laity who suspected wrongdoing often felt cowed into silence. Ingrained habits of deference and respect make protest very difficult. In such a clerical culture, which Scottish Catholicism surely was and in many ways still is, an abusive priest may well have thought that the powers-that-be would protect him to avoid a scandal. Too often he was right. The cultural reform that the McLellan report thinks is necessary to abolish the scourge of child abuse, therefore, goes far wider than this one issue. The leadership of the Catholic Church in Scotland has to become accountable to its members. That journey has hardly begun.
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