Catholic church in Scotland asks forgiveness from child abuse victims

The Scottish Catholic church has offered a “profound apology” to victims of child abuse and the church’s failure to investigate and punish the culprits, after a damning independent report into its conduct.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, the official head of the Scottish church, told a congregation in Glasgow on Tuesday that their bishops were “shamed and pained” by the abuse suffered by children and adults over recent decades. “We say sorry. We ask forgiveness.”

After pledging to act on an independent inquiry commissioned by the church, which accused its bishops of covering up the crimes for decades, Tartaglia said: “Child abuse is a horrific crime. That this abuse should have been carried out within the church, and by priests and religious [orders], takes that abuse to another level.

“Such actions are inexcusable and intolerable. The harm the perpetrators of abuse have caused is first and foremost to their victims, but it extends far beyond them, to their families and friends, as well as to the church and wider society.”

A commission chaired by Andrew McLellan, a former prisons inspector, had told the church that an apology for the abuse and comprehensive action by the church to make reparations and overhaul its procedures was essential for the future ofCatholicism in Scotland.

McLellan said the particular case “which stuck with me” involved one woman repeatedly locked in a darkened room as a child by a nun who was her carer. “The same nun sexually abused me. I told the priest in confession, the priest told the nun and together they raped me,” she said. “I was still only eight years old.”

“This report gives the Catholic church a chance, an unrepeatable chance, to make things better. If this opportunity isn’t taken, survivors will know that there’s no hope left for them in the Catholic church in Scotland,” McLellan said on Tuesday, after highlighting repeated recent pledges of action by successive popes and senior Scottish bishops.

“If this opportunity isn’t taken, many Catholics who are longing for a new beginning will feel betrayed by the church. If this opportunity isn’t taken, the public credibility of the Catholic church in Scotland will be destroyed.”

The McLellan inquiry was set up by Scotland’s bishops in November 2013 after a string of highly damaging historical abuse scandals came to light, including repeated child abuse by paedophile priests, which was often covered up or ignored, systematic abuse by staff at Fort Augustus Catholic boarding school, and the admissions of sexual misconduct against adult priests by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, then the UK’s most senior Catholic.

The church’s own investigations in 2013 disclosed that there were also 46 live allegations of abuse against priests made between 2006 and 2012, leading to seven prosecutions.

In 2013, there were another 15 allegations made, six of which were historical. Three priests were removed from roles involving the public, and two cases are with Scottish prosecutors, with prosecutors also studying allegations of abuse by nine men at Fort Augustus between 1967 and 1992.

The inquiry by McLellan, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland, the country’s largest Protestant church, was not set up to investigate specific cases or allegations.

The Scottish church has its own parallel historical abuse inquiry under way, which is expected to detail the true extent of abuse within the church. But McLellan said numerous cases in Scotland were brought to the commission’s attention.

However, the 12-member commission, which included two bishops, the former judge and Lord Advocate, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, and the broadcaster Sheena McDonald, failed to make any specific recommendations on overseeing and policing its cardinals.

One of the central complaints in the Keith O’Brien affair – the biggest crisis to hit the Scottish church in modern history – by his adult victims was that they felt powerless and unable to complain because he was cardinal.

The only person in the Catholic church worldwide able to sanction him was the pope, which will remain the case in any future scandal involving a cardinal.

McLellan said some general recommendations on tackling a deeply rooted culture of secrecy in the church were relevant to the O’Brien scandal but he said he could not tackle the question of a cardinal’s impunity from local control because the Scottish church itself did not have any power to sanction its most senior cleric.

“There was nothing that the bishops themselves could do to exercise any authority over the cardinal,” he told the Guardian. But he added that the cloud of secrecy still surrounding the O’Brien affair also prevented the commission from offering firm judgments about solving that problem.

“I believe few Catholics in Scotland themselves know what has happened,” he said. “It would be rash for me to make any recommendations based on hearsay rather than evidence.”

Even so, the commission stated that the church’s failure to control Fort Augustus boarding school because it was seen as independent had to be addressed. In a statement unveiling his report, McLellan said: “It has been a slow and complicated business to determine who is responsible for what in dealing with the scandal at Fort Augustus.

“These structural difficulties mean nothing to survivors and nothing to the public. What the survivors need, and what the public expect, is that the church as a whole will take responsibility for what has happened and what must happen and refuse to take refuge in quibbles about authority,” he said.

The commission found numerous flaws in the church’s current procedures, including failing to impose the same rules and standards on all dioceses; a failure to involve victims of abuse in drafting its central policy document on safeguarding; ignoring widely accepted United Nations definitions of abuse and audit processes that did not give comparative figures or guidance on sanctions.

Among its eight headline recommendations and numerous subsidiary recommendations, the commission unanimously said:

  • The Scottish church had to make support for victims of abuse “an absolute priority”, including a full public apology.
  • The church should set up a fund to pay for counselling for abuse victims.
  • The church had to stop pretending that different dioceses and religious orders were autonomous when it came to upholding its rules on abuse.
  • The duty of bishops in protecting and helping victims needed to be explicitly set out in the church’s guidelines on “awareness and safety”.
  • The church needed independent, external scrutiny of its safeguarding policies and their effectiveness to end the practice of the church policing itself.
  • The church had to be far more rigorous in making sure all its priests and staff had the correct training in preventing abuse and safeguarding.
  • Bishops and priests had to stop appearing to blame victims for their abuse.

The report stated: “Justice must be done, and justice must be seen to be done, for those who have been abused and for those against whom allegations of abuse are made.”

It added: “There are clearly parishes in which commitment to safeguarding is still resisted because of complacency and lack of interest.”

McLellan said three things had to happen. “First, and most important, a beginning will be made to heal the hurt and address the anger which survivors feel,” he said.

“Second, the Catholic church in Scotland will confront a dark part of its past and find some healing for itself. Third, a significant step will be taken in restoring public credibility for the Catholic church.”