McLellan Report Confusing, Repetitive, and Turgid

The Review, commissioned by the Scottish Catholic Bishops, is an examination of the measures the bishops have already put in place to protect children and vulnerable adults

On August 18, 2015, the McLellan Commission released a report entitled “A Review of the Current Safeguarding Policies, Procedures and Practise within the Catholic Church in Scotland”. The work was commissioned by the Scottish Catholic Bishops, and the committee was headed by Dr Andrew McLellan, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland. A short summary of the 87-page document was released to the Scottish media, whose coverage showed little evidence that it had read the report in its entirety.

The McLellan Commission was convened in 2013, the year Edinburgh’s archbishop Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned amid allegations he had made sexual advances to priests. In 2013, allegations also surfaced that boys had been physically and sexually abused by Benedictine monks at their school at Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire before it closed in 1993. The Commission was not asked to research Scottish Catholic clerical misconduct, but to examine the measures the Scottish Catholic bishops had already put in place to protect children and vulnerable adults.

Instead the Commission has produced a badly constructed, meandering document, the first two chapters providing a turgid and repetitive preamble which offers generalities and platitudes about abuse and Catholic shame instead of offering information. Very little context regarding the Catholic Church in Scotland is provided. It is not until Chapter 3 (paragraph 3.49) that the reader is told how many Catholic priests serve in Scotland’s 500 Catholic parishes (590). Never is the reader told how many priests in Scotland have been found guilty of sexual abuse.

In Chapter 2, however, we are told that there were 45 allegations of abuse between 2006 and 2012. “More than half” were claims of sexual abuse. Seven of these resulted in prosecution. (The Commission does not disclose the verdicts.) In 2013, a further 15 allegations of abuse—the Commission does not specify the kind—were made, six relating to events before 1990. Two of those cases are currently before the public prosecutor, and three clerics have been removed from ministry.

Numbers and facts are few and far between in the McLellan Report although there are many quotes from Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, heads of charitable organizations and anonymous sources, including unnamed Church officials and survivors of abuse. Meanwhile, the Report’s terminology is unclear; it defines “parish” in its glossary but not “PVG scheme”. The “Catholic Church” seems to mean an organization of bishops, priests and religious until Paragraph 6.1 when the document “hopes” for the “ownership and empowerment of lay members”. Also confusing is the Report’s use of the word “evidence”. It provides very little evidence for its statements, even going so far as to guess, e.g. 5.9 “The Church is likely to be afraid of liability.” By “evidence”, it merely means statements made to the Commission.

The most solid part of the Report concerns what it purports to examine: the measures already implemented for the safety of Catholic spaces. But here it focusses solely on the Scottish Catholic bishops’ policy and practice manual, “Awareness and Safety in Our Catholic Communities”. Strangely, the Report does not state when this document first appeared. Although it is generally positive about “Awareness and Safety”, it is gravely concerned about various lacunae, including its lack of the phrase “paramountcy principle”. The Report’s recommendations can be confusing: it says in some places that the welfare of children should be the primary concern, but in others that the Church’s primary concern should be abuse survivors.

The tone of the document verges on shrill when it addresses structural realities of the Catholic Church, including the fact that the authority of the Bishop of Glasgow does not extend beyond Glasgow. The author of Paragraph 3.3 clearly doesn’t like this, and the fact that a Bishop also doesn’t have ultimate authority over the heads of such religious orders as the Benedictines seems to shock. At issue here for the Commission is that every Catholic community in Scotland must be compelled by authority to implement the provisions of “Awareness and Safety”—and the Commission’s suggested amendments—in the same way, according to the same “Quality Assurance” standard, across Scotland’s eight dioceses.

The difficulties in doing this are hinted at in Chapter 3’s discussion of (unpaid, volunteer) Parish Safeguarding Co-ordinators. The Commission lists the duties of a Parish Co-ordinator and observes, “It is a daunting list of responsibilities; and it is hardly surprising that the skills and time commitment of parish safeguarding coordinators vary considerably. What is surprising is that the support they receive from their own parishes and from their own parish priests also varies considerably. Worse still, in some parishes there is no coordinator at all” (3.43). What may be surprising to a Scottish Catholic is that anyone could find marked differences from parish to parish surprising, particularly in a country comprising 30,000 square miles.

Except for their lack of support for the parish safeguarding co-ordinator, Joe and Mhairi Catholic are largely missing from the McLellan Report, which is strange as they and their children are the people the safeguarding measures are meant to protect. The Commission spoke to 24 individuals who were either abuse survivors or supporters of abuse survivors; however, there is no evidence that the Commission canvassed Catholic parents about something so simple as how they felt about allowing their children to become altar servers or sing in a choir. Nor was there any endeavour to discover if Catholic adults have been deterred from volunteering in Church-sponsored activities because they found the guidelines of “Awareness and Safety” too confusing or media coverage of abuse allegations too frightening.

The 590 active priests of Scotland are likewise left a cipher. One is singled out for having forgotten the Commission was coming to see him; we are not told his age. The differing seminary experiences of two priests are mentioned in one section; they seem to have multiplied when the story is repeated later. We are told nothing of the one religious community in Scotland that refuses to implement the safeguards of “Awareness and Safety” except that they are small. Considering the demographics of religious in Scotland (not mentioned in the Report), one wonders if they are also bedridden.

Of Scotland’s historic, systematic, institutional and sometimes violent societal prejudice against Roman Catholics, there is only the merest hint: Dr McLellan commends the Scottish bishops on an “ecumenical trust that could not have been guessed at in Scotland 30 years ago.” Well, the Scottish bishops have pledged to implement all the McLellan Commission’s recommendations, but if they trusted the Commission to produce a well-written, well-researched piece of work, that trust was betrayed.

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About Dorothy Cummings McLean 26 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She is a regular writer for Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.