Catherine Deveney: “Why this apology from the Scottish Catholic church rings hollow to me”
They process slowly to the altar, Scotland’s Catholic bishops, their elaborate robes and red zucchettos symbols of their power and status. Around them, the light, honey-coloured stone arches of St Andrew’s cathedral in Glasgow soar, Italian-style embellishment spiralling up the slender columns in Madonna-blue paint and gold leaf.
On one side of me, Peter Howson’s depiction of the Scottish martyr, St John Ogilvie, seems luminous, glowing gold amid black, a study of unbowed resignation. To the other side, archbishop Philip Tartaglia is nervously welcoming publication of the McLellan report into abuse in the Scottish Catholic church, apologising to victims in a carefully worded statement. As he talks I am struck – not for the first time since the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien two years ago – by the way opulence sits cheek by jowl with ugliness inside the Catholic church.
“The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered,” says Tartaglia. “We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”
Only hours earlier, I had been on the east coast, in Edinburgh, listening as Dr Andrew McLellan, a minister and former moderator of the Church of Scotland, delivered what he referred to as, “the most important report of my life”. His words were emotional, impassioned, gathering momentum until they became a kind of hymn to justice. He talked of the “dark past” of the church, of the enormous damage it had caused victims, of the need for the church to act “from the heart”. Crucially, he had grasped not just events but a culture, a culture of cover-up in which the church said one thing and did another. McLellan had promised a report that was neither timid nor deferential. He delivered it.
It has been a long journey to hear those words. McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Scottish church. It had been a difficult year for Scottish Catholics. Nine months before, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct towards his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historical abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey school, an exclusive Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.
I had reported on both stories exclusively in the Observer. In the months that followed, a flood of abuse victims made contact. I listened to the horrors of childhood abuse recounted by adults whose lives were hallmarked by damage. The Catholic church had shaped my childhood. Flickering candles and the heavy scent of incense. Shadowy statues in dimly lit churches, the crucified Christ crowned with thorns and stained with blood. For me, those candles now flickered precariously and the bleeding figure of Christ took on the shape of abused children.
When McLellan was appointed, I hesitated. I had information that I believed was relevant to his inquiry. Would appearing before his commission be stepping inside the story rather than reporting it? But I was a human being as well as a journalist. The voices of the abused ran loudly in my head.
In any case, I believed the commission was vitally important because it was external scrutiny. For too long the Catholic church had been allowed to be lawmaker, judge, jury and hangman in its own world. This time, the judge wasn’t one of the team.
McLellan answered my request to speak to him within 24 hours. It signalled his intent. I had made the same request to Charles Scicluna, the Maltese bishop charged with investigating O’Brien. Despite two of the four O’Brien complainants urging Scicluna to speak to me, he refused to even acknowledge my letter. If you seek truth, you seek it from all quarters.
What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past, and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”
By then, I had gone on to write a controversial story about Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost 20 years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.
As Tartaglia speaks, I mentally scan the group of bishops surrounding him. The bishop of Galloway, William Nolan, who has threatened Father Lawson with disciplinary action for appealing to civil law. The bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert, who publicly expressed sorrow for Fort Augustus and pledged every assistance to victims, then privately sent a letter to a victim’s lawyer saying it was not his responsibility. Mario Conti, the former archbishop of Glasgow, who publicly stated that abuse victims were not looking for justice but pots of gold. Maurice Taylor, former bishop of Galloway, who protected abuser Father Paul Moore and bought him a house. Later, a contributor to Twitter notes the irony of Taylor’s presence.
As Tartaglia concludes, I glance at John Ogilvie. Scotland’s only post-reformation saint, he stood firm when his brother priests fled their oppressors and was hanged for his defiance. Who among today’s bishops will stand firm? McLellan had made something clear in his address. This was the Catholic church’s last opportunity to regain public credibility. Tartaglia assures the congregation the bishops will implement the report in full. So is it job done?
My answer is to tell you my knowledge of events in the Catholic church in the period around the publication of the report. Days before, I get confirmation from the police of a serious investigation into alleged abuse by a senior Catholic cleric in Scotland. The accused is a close friend of one of the most senior members of the church’s hierarchy and was not suspended while the investigation took place, despite the report’s recommendations to the contrary.
Leaving the BBC studio where I have given a reaction to the report, I receive a call from an abuse victim. She is distraught, wants me to know something in case anything happens to her. She has told her bishop of historical abuse when she was 15 by a serving priest. The bishop’s response? Nobody need know. Then the day after the report, I receive information that the church’s lawyers are pursuing costs against Father Lawson, the main carer to his elderly mother who is suffering from dementia, because he was ill on the day the employment tribunal was scheduled and it had to be postponed. “They are obviously trying to make life as difficult as possible for him,” says Father Lawson’s lawyer.
Andrew McLellan made something crystal clear in Edinburgh. Words were not enough. They had to be followed by two things: repentance and action. Until the church’s public words match their private actions, Philip Tartaglia’s words of apology will ring hollow around a cathedral that may be beautiful, but which has an ever-dwindling congregation.