A “dreadful misunderstanding” of child abuse led the Catholic Church to offer therapy to paedophile priests and agree deals to avoid prosecutions.
The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry heard the Church attempted to “repair” clerics who committed offences against children and had made “horrible mistakes” in its treatment of victims.
Speaking on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference, Monsignor Peter Smith said the Church “seldom” used its own formal processes in the past to punish sex offenders, choosing instead to send them to retreat houses for therapy.
Mgr Smith said in cases where the police and prosecution service became involved, often no further action was taken when it was agreed the priest would receive help.
He said: “It’s always been seen as a serious sin for clerics to offend against minors. Always. But that understanding of it was very much to do with sin. The law of the Church presented an opportunity for that sin to be dealt with juridically, but that was seldom done.”
The inquiry, which has already cost £5.7 million, is looking into the abuse of children in care dating back decades and is expected to report in October 2019.
More than 60 institutions including leading boarding schools and residential homes run by religious groups are being investigated.
Mgr Smith said the belief within the Church had been that “being caught” and getting into trouble was enough for abusive priests to reform, something he described as a “dreadful misunderstanding”.
“It was better to repair the person, to fix them or to redeem them and that was a huge mistake,” he said.
“What about the victims?” asked Colin MacAulay QC, the inquiry’s senior counsel.
Mgr Smith replied: “Well, indeed.”
The former Vatican attaché to the United Nations, who is now a parish priest in Glasgow, said that in the 1970s the abuse wasn’t talked about, meaning offences carried out in one diocese would not be known in another. He said that meant the Church had not realised the scale of the problem.
He said: “It wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t shared by the bishops. It’s still horendously embarassing that such things should have been done by a priest to an innocent party.”
Following the emergence of abuse scandals across the world in the 1990s, Mgr Smith said measures adopted in 2001 meant allegations of abuse are now reported to the Church’s safeguarding service, rather than to bishops directly.
And he said that while in the past bishops had “vigilance” over Catholic schools, the Bishops’ Conference had “no involvement” in the oversight of schools run by religious orders.