Comment: The Church deserves balanced reporting

CHILD sex abuse shames society, but suggesting the Catholic church has a disporporionate problem is a terrible deception writes Peter Kearney

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, the president of the Bishops Conference of Scotland respond to the report of the McLellan Commission. Picture: Robert Perry

The Catholic church in Scotland has been reasonably criticised in recent years over failings in the field of safeguarding. The media attention given to the church has been significant and for the most part, negative. It has however, become very difficult to determine whether or not the criticism is proportionate, balanced or fair.

Last year, a commission chaired by Dr Andrew McLellan and charged with examining Safeguarding in the church, put forward eight recommendations – all of which were accepted. Three months later, the Church published its “Implementation Plan”, setting out the action it will take, with timescales and accountability.

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The McLellan Commission took just under two years to complete its report, implementing its recommendations will take a similar timescale, but they will all be completed by December 2017.

The media has continued to scrutinise the work of the church in this area – pressing for signs of reform and demanding answers to difficult questions on new procedures, guidelines and protocol. This robust attention is welcome and serves to strengthen the resolve of those working within the Church to be as transparent and accountable as possible. Survivors deserve that.

Sadly, however as well as the total failure of many institutions in society to recognise and react to the scale and depth of the abuse of children in our midst, there has been an almost complete failure on the part of our media to examine or explain the problem in any balanced or comprehensive way.

As a visible and high-profile institution in society with a media office which journalists can contact at any time for response and comment, the church is easy to cover. This however, doesn’t explain the surprising complacency on the part of many in the media and public life, who have failed utterly to bring to public attention a problem which shames us all.

According to Scottish Government research, in 2012-13 in Scotland, 9,100 children reported experiencing sexual abuse. In the same year, there were 3,400 recorded offences which the police judged to be a crime. There were also 500 defendants brought before a court on child sexual abuse charges and 400 offenders found guilty of child sexual offences.

The government’s “Exploring the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in Scotland” report makes depressing reading. Were some journalists to wade through this 56-page report however, it would serve to shine some much needed light on a deep societal problem.

By releasing an audit of allegations every year, the Catholic Church makes coverage of its work much easier. Surprisingly, other churches don’t do this. Neither do national youth or voluntary groups or the NHS or our local authorities or Police Scotland. Incredibly, there is no public clamour for any of them to do so. No denunciations of their lack of transparency, no detailed investigations into the well-being and safety of the hundreds of thousands of children who pass through these institutions every year. Instead, there’s an almost exclusive focus on the policies and procedures of the Catholic church – in a country where 84 per cent of the population aren’t Catholics.

To repeat, there were 3,400 recorded offences of sexual abuse against children in 2013. In the same year, there were no allegations made against Catholic clergy or church staff and one allegation made against a member of a religious order.

In 2014, there was one allegation made against clergy or church staff and no allegations made against religious orders. According to NSPCC Scotland figures obtained under 
a freedom of information request from Police Scotland, there are 
seven child sex abuse cases in 
Scotland every day, 2,555 cases per year.

By comparison, the Church figures for recent years are: 2012: 11 allegations (nine historical), 2011: six allegations (two historical). 2010: Eight allegations (seven historical), 2009: three allegations (all historical), 2008: 11 allegations (all historical), 2007: two allegations (one historical), 2006: five allegations (one historical) of the allegations listed here, it is worth noting, that over a third were made against volunteers, not clergy.

In summary, over the past ten years there have been an average of two complaints per year against Catholic clergy and religious volunteers. That equates to around 0.3 per cent of the total. This means over 99 per cent have never been accused or charged with any abusive behaviour whatsoever.

All abuse is utterly wrong and must always be condemned. Narratives suggesting the Catholic Church has a disproportionate problem and wider society hasn’t is a terrible deception. Survivors deserve better.

• Peter Kearney, Director, Scottish Catholic Media Office