Bishop Joseph Toal: Have faith in the church to right the wrongs of abuse

Bishop Joseph Toal, bishop responsible for safeguarding, Bishops Conference of Scotland
Bishop Joseph Toal, bishop responsible for safeguarding, Bishops Conference of Scotland
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Last month, the Catholic Church in Scotland ­published its new ­safeguarding manual, In God’s Image, offering comprehensive ­guidance and instruction on every aspect of safeguarding in the church.

It has been shaped by the recent experience and developing expertise of those involved in the front line of safeguarding in the church, both in Scotland and internationally.

In signing and ratifying this ­publication, the bishops of Scotland took the opportunity to repeat and renew apologies made to those who have suffered any form of abuse, at any time, by anyone representing the church.

We aspire to the highest standards of care and protection and we are committed to rebuilding trust and confidence in the ways in which we ensure that children, young people and vulnerable adults are kept safe.

This publication marks the end of a period in which the church has been working quietly, but tirelessly to implement the recommendations of the McLellan Commission which reported in August 2015.

Since 2013 we have published ­annual audits of allegations ­reported each year. In March, we also ­published a historical review of ­non-recent cases of abuse, covering the period 1943 -2005.

These statistics were compiled and subjected to an independent statistical analysis. The publication of our annual audits, the historical review and our new safeguarding manual demonstrate our ongoing commitment to openness and transparency. The extensive work done by the church will willingly be shared with other institutions, who wish to revise and review their safeguarding ­policies.

Publications alone however are not enough. Regular reviews and rigorous scrutiny by those both inside and outside the church will be required as will independent evaluation.

The Independent Review Group, chaired by Baroness Liddell, ­comprises a team of experienced and distinguished experts in safeguarding, child protection and education.

This autonomous body has overseen the implementation of the McLellan recommendations and now examines the annual safeguarding audits. Each year, the group will scrutinise the work of two of the eight dioceses in Scotland, alongside a review of the work of religious orders. Every five years the whole safeguarding structure within the church will be subject to independent inspection and scrutiny.

Engagement with survivors is ­crucially important. Since the publication of the McLellan Report, each bishop in Scotland has met with ­survivors of abuse. Given the ­profound and sensitive nature of this issue, such encounters take place ­discreetly, at a time and place suited to the needs of the survivor.

Indeed, measuring engagement with survivors is both simple and complex. For example, we can count the number of survivors who have reached out to the independent ­counselling service, which is paid for by the church and provided by a ­professional external agency.

Yet, evaluating the impact of engagement is a more challenging task. Whilst sharing commonalities in the grief, pain and anguish of experiences of abuse, each survivor is an individual, with a unique history and specific needs. Thus, they each have different coping mechanisms, ­different support needs and even ­different expectations about how their requirements might be met.

I have encountered survivors who simply want to be listened to, to be heard, and to be understood. ­Others articulate a need for counselling, spiritual guidance or redress. Some want to live their lives, without any contact from the church or its representatives. Each of these wishes must be respected and we should be wary of aggregating survivors and ascribing opinions or emotions to them – they are individuals and should be treated individually.

The first chapter of Genesis tells us humans are created “in the image of God” making each human life ­inherently valuable and giving each person an innate and precious ­dignity.

As a society, both globally and locally, we have failed to recognise this ­precious dignity in many of the people entrusted to our care. We have seen with cruel repetition scandals engulfing politics, football, show business and most recently, the international aid sector. The church shares in this scandal, although our shame is greater, because our expectation of safety and ­compassion were higher.

While the recommendations we pledged to implement have now been put into practice, the challenge we face is to renew, rebuild and restore faith and hope in the church by offering faith and hope to one another.

Bishop Joseph Toal, Bishop responsible for safeguarding, Bishops Conference of Scotland.