Dani Garavelli: Religious card's a joker

THE thing about believing you're being persecuted by all around you is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The kind of person who interprets every barbed comment as proof of a conspiracy against them tends to be so prickly and defensive they end up attracting the very ill-feeling they had initially imagined.

So it was with a heavy heart that I read the claim by Peter Kearney that anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland is "wide, deep and vicious", and his assertion that - with the Hugh Dallas debacle - the faithful were drawing a line in the sand. (When was that decided? I don't remember committing to any line-drawing.)

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

When I saw words such as "poison", "excised" and "pernicious", I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry; to cry because what else can such provocative language do but shore up any residual sectarianism in Scotland, while rousing resentment amongst those who previously harboured none?

It certainly gave career atheist Richard Dawkins the chance to have another go. But even some Catholics - those liberals the traditionalists refer to scathingly as "pick and mix" - feel alienated by a depiction of their country which doesn't resonate with them at all.

Or to laugh because, if you were going to make a serious case for the Catholic Church being victimised, you surely wouldn't base it on such a trivial event as the SFA referees' chief forwarding a joke e-mail alluding to the child sex abuse scandal on the day of the Pope's visit. It may justify disciplinary action by his employers, but a treatise on entrenched bigotry? Hardly.

If Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic media office, had chosen to make a stand over the way Catholic schools are consistently lambasted I would have had some sympathy. Of course, other people have a right to disapprove of faith-based education, but the way so many focus their argument on demonstrably untrue claims about them fostering intolerance can be galling.

If he had chosen to express his frustration about the way in which the debate on abortion so often seems to be an excuse for a free-for-all against Catholicism, then I would have known where he was coming from (although I hold the emotive rhetoric used by many Church leaders partly to blame for this situation).

But the fact he chose the dissemination of the joke - a picture of the "Caution: Children Crossing" sign which shows an adult and a child holding hands, with the words changed to "Caution: the Pope is Coming" - on which to hang his outburst says so much about the Church in Scotland; about its lack of insight into its own failings; its refusal to accept criticism and its inability to distinguish bigotry from legitimate debate.

The Pope isn't just a religious leader - he is a public figure; he makes moral pronouncements on a world stage and, as such, he is an entirely appropriate target for satire. As for the reference to paedophilia - there could be hardly be an issue more ripe for black humour than the way in which the Church dealt with the child sex abuse scandal.

Kearney points out that of the 2,000 or so Catholic priests in Scotland only 0.5 per cent have been convicted of child sex abuse, and suggests this is no greater than the proportion convicted in other sections of the community. But he fails to understand that the e-mail isn't about the scale of the problem but the way the Church inflamed it by attempting to keep it in-house, instead of informing the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Whether you see the e-mail as entirely justified or gratuitously offensive, neither it - nor other jokes about the Pontiff - can be presented as proof of widespread ill-feeling towards Catholics in Scotland. For that we would have to see ordinary people enduring sustained verbal abuse and discrimination in the job market.

You only have to look round the Scottish establishment to see any such contention is unsustainable; Catholics are well-represented in medicine, dentistry and the legal profession. Whatever prejudice ordinary Catholics are facing, it clearly isn't harming their careers.

The only evidence Kearney offers are assaults on three priests. These alleged incidents - one in Lanarkshire, one in Renfrewshire, one in West Lothian - are deplorable. But if the conviction of 0.5 per cent of Scottish priests proves nothing about paedophilia, then how can attacks on 0.15 per cent of them be held to prove any wider point about sectarianism?

As for the vandalism that has led to parish windows being "barred and grilled", I'm afraid that happens everywhere there's poverty: from community centres to hospitals to playparks.

Personally, I think the Catholic Church in Scotland would find people better disposed to its views if it learned to use more temperate language when trying to express them; if it took some of the criticisms levelled against it on board, instead of constantly playing the "religious card"; and, particularly, if it refrained from intervening in the internal disciplinary proceedings of unrelated institutions under the guise of fighting sectarianism.