Emeritus Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti
23 August 2013, 9:00
The Emeritus Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, responds to an editorial in The Tablet of 10 August that criticised safeguarding in the Catholic Church of Scotland and compared it unfavourably with England and Wales.
The Tablet’s editorial, “Curse of Complacency”, made some damning judgments of the Catholic Church in Scotland with respect to safeguarding, suggesting that it “has a long way to go” and that “the Catholic Church in England and Wales [is] streets ahead of Scotland” in respect of caring for survivors. The editorial illustrates this with reference to the recent revelations about alleged abuse of boys at Fort Augustus School by monks of the Abbey.
Firstly with regard to Fort Augustus, the school and monastery was within the ecclesiastical area of Scotland but not under the jurisdiction of the Church in Scotland other than in respect of its parish responsibilities. The internal life of the abbey and the management of its school was outside these. It was autonomous as a Benedictine community and in terms of its affiliation was a member of the English Benedictine Congregation. If any of these allegations had been made to me while I was Bishop of Aberdeen from 1977 to 2002, I would have alerted the proper authorities to them.
A statement was made recently on behalf of the Church in Scotland with which I fully concur: “We deplore acts of abuse at any time, in any place, committed by anyone representing the Church, or working in, with or for the Church. Although legal and criminal responsibility for any abusive behaviour may lie elsewhere, Scotland’s Catholic Dioceses are prepared to accept pastoral responsibility for those who have been harmed to help them heal.” Each diocese has someone in place to hear complaints and to advise complainants how to proceed in having them addressed.
As regards actual safeguarding, the Catholic Church in Scotland has had nationally agreed guidelines on the protection of children and vulnerable adults since 1999. In this regard, the Church was two years ahead of the Nolan Commission in England and Wales, which reported in 2001.
Every person, clerical or lay, who has any degree of responsibility of care of children is required to be vetted as regards suitability, be police checked for any possible previous complaint or conviction, and be trained in child protection.
Each parish has a person appointed to monitor those exercising such care, and identified as someone to whom any complaint is to be reported. Each diocese has its safeguarding officer, and advisory committee. There is also a national office answerable to the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland that has responsibility to ensure implementation of the guidelines agreed by the bishops and to provide training.
In November 2006 the General Secretary of the conference wrote to Baroness Cumberlege, at her invitation, to advise for comparative purposes that the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland had chosen to establish a Reference Group rather than a (national) Management Board: “Working with the diocesan adviser and members of the diocesan child protection team the bishop takes responsibility for implementing national policy in his own diocese. The strategic direction is set and monitored by the bishops’ conference with advice from a group of experts, the Reference Group, chaired by one of the members of the bishops’ conference and attended by the National Co-ordinator.
“The Reference Group brings together expertise in a number of relevant fields, including child care and protection, policing, care for adults at risk, civil and canon law, human resources and personnel management … The National Co-ordinator also compiles an audit of compliance from each of the dioceses to allow the bishops to monitor the degree to which the agreed policy is being followed both in their own dioceses and nationally.”
I can vouch for the good work undertaken by the Reference Group since, until my retirement last September, I was chairman of the group.
It was the intention of all but one member of the bishops’ conference to commission an independent examination of the historical cases we had on file in all of our respective dioceses and publish the results but this was delayed by the objection of the then-President of the Conference; without full participation of all the dioceses the exercise would have been faulty.
I understand that in the light of the criticisms the Church has been facing, these audits will now be published. I think they will go some way towards confirming Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell’s remarks that the percentage of priests involved in abuse is “tiny”, and in demonstrating the seriousness and competence with which the Church in Scotland has been dealing with safeguarding in all its implications for many years.