Union sets up hotline to help church ministers who are victims of bullying

DOZENS of Scottish clergy have contacted a new hotline to claim they are being bullied or harassed by their parishioners.

The helpline has been set up by the trade union Unite, which says intimidation of ministers and priests from all denominations is a hidden problem.

Cases include a minister who fled his home in Peterhead after violent harassment and a Highlands cleric who said he was on the verge of suicide because of mental bullying.

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Unite is now lobbying for the government to change the law to give ministers and priests better protection and full employment rights.

The problem was highlighted last month when a minister was allegedly attacked on the front steps of his manse.

Rev Andrew Renshaw, minister of Peterhead Methodist Church, left the house along with wife Janet and daughters Rebecca, 17, Rachel, 16,Sarah, 12, and Hannah, seven, after it was targeted by local teenagers and young men.

It is understood problems began in September when Renshaw, 41, was allegedly punched in the face following an argument with a man on the doorstep of his home.

Neighbours claimed the family suffered abuse for weeksbefore deciding it was no longer safe to remain in the town.

Rev Kenneth Morgan, who oversees Methodist churches in the Peterhead area, confirmed the family left Peterhead for safety reasons, adding that it was "all very sad".

Terry Young, a former minister who runs the Unite helpline, said: "They're picked on for everything they do wrong, so in the end the person runs around terrified.

"You see people unsupported, driven to depression and nervous breakdown."

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Unite says it has so far attracted more than 200 Scottish-based members to its faith-based branch and the recruitment campaign has shed light on a little-known problem of ministers and priests facing bitter and sometimes violent treatment at the hands of church-goers and colleagues.

It has now launched "anti-bullying" classes for senior staff at the Church of Scotland in an effort to help stamp out harassment.

Rachel Maskell, the union's national officer for faith workers, claims church leaders of all religions must do more to help under-pressure clerics.

"Often the bullying is coming from members of their own congregation. In most other walks of life, this would not be tolerated and there would be support in place for victims. Often ministers feel they do not have anyone to turn to for advice.

"The helpline is there so that they can get support and find out what their rights are."

Maskell said staff at the Church of Scotland had been trained by union experts in how to spot bullying.

Rev Dr Martin Scott, who heads the Kirk's Ministries Council, which provides care and support for ministers, admits the problem of bullying does exist.

He said: "We cannot afford to be complacent. Bullying does happen. Sometimes it is the minister who is bullied, either by congregation members or by those in positions of authority."

However, the Kirk had been working hard to try to tackle the problem, Scott added, with the General Assembly passing two acts aimed at ending bullying and discrimination within the church.

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