Catholic Church under Fire over Sex Education Row

By Hamish MacDonell
The Scotsman
August 31, 2004

Key points

* McConnell called to stand up to Catholic Church on sex education
* Attack on unpublished proposals absurd , say MSPs
* Cardinal O'Brien claims Executive plans sex education for 3-year-olds

Key quote

"[New sex education proposals are]state- sponsored sexual abuse of minors" - Cardinal Keith O'Brien

JACK McConnell was coming under pressure from inside his own party last night not to concede any more ground to the Catholic Church in the escalating row over sex education.

Several Labour MSPs and trade unionists hit out at the tactics of the Catholic Church, claiming it was disingenuous for the church to attack the Scottish Executive's plans for sex education before they had even been published.

The issue erupted over the weekend when Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leading Roman Catholic in Scotland, called the Executive's plans for a new sexual health strategy "state- sponsored sexual abuse of minors".

Cardinal O'Brien claimed the Executive had plans for sex education lessons for children as young as three, and warned that teenagers would be given access to contraceptives without their parents' knowledge.

He warned Mr McConnell to expect a battle which would dwarf the dispute four years ago over Section 28.

However in November last year, the Catholic Church did sign up to a report by an expert working group, called Enhancing Sexual Wellbeing in Scotland, upon which the Executive's sexual health strategy will be based.

And the Catholic representative on that group, Father Joe Chambers, a priest in Glasgow, said he was surprised at the timing of the Cardinal's remarks. On the prospect of nursery children getting explicit advice about sex, he said he was "not sure where Keith O'Brien is getting that line from", but added: "I feel there's a moral vacuum in Scottish society which is reflected in sexual issues for young people and I really think that was Keith O'Brien's major concern. I don't think he was attacking this report."

The First Minister reacted quickly, insisting that the Executive had no plans for sex education lessons for nursery children and stressing that the strategy had not even been drawn up. He said that the early drafts contained some proposals to liberalise sex education in that way, but there was no prospect of these being included in the final document.

Mr McConnell is keenly aware of the damage a dispute with the Catholic Church could do to his party's chances at the next election, but he is equally aware of the widespread feeling within his party that the executive needs to push ahead with its plans for a new sexual health framework to counter the problem of teenage pregnancies and the alarming rise of sexually transmitted diseases among the young.

Several Labour MSPs and leading trade unionists spoke out yesterday.

Pauline McNeill, MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, said the Catholic Church was entitled to its view but warned that it should not try to win the argument by making up scare stories. She said: "What the church should not be doing is exaggerating its claims. If you are going to get into a battle with the Executive you should be clear about the facts. It is not helpful to have this debate unless we are absolutely clear on what is happening."

Susan Deacon, a former health minister, said she did not want to get involved in a specific argument with the Cardinal. But she added: "It is really important that in reaching a decision on these matters the Executive does not just react to who shouts loudest."

The Scottish Trade Union Congress also stepped into the row to urge Mr McConnell to stand firm against the pressure being exerted by the Catholic Church.

Mary Senior, the STUC assistant secretary, said: "The approach of Cardinal O'Brien is most concerning and confusing, when it appeared that the Catholic Church was engaged in a debate. Rather than approaching this complex and sensitive subject in a sensitive and mature way, the Cardinal appears to be frightening parents and raising concerns that are unfounded."


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