The Woman Leading the Fight against Clerical Abuse in Scotland

By Cate Devine
Herald Scotland
September 8, 2010

It might not be known for its advocacy of women within its ranks, but the Catholic Church in Scotland has entrusted one of its most important jobs to a diminutive and feisty 60-year-old mother of three.

Clerical abuse is perhaps the biggest crisis to have faced the Catholic church, and the Pope is expected to meet victims, including Scots, privately while in London on his state visit to the UK next week.

Jackie McCaig, from Milton of Campsie, has the job of leading the strategy of the Church in Scotland through an innovative programme to prevent abuse in the future.

Mrs McCaig is the national co-ordinator of the Catholic Church's Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults. She works with Scotland's 740 priests to ensure they are fully aware of the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003, and that they implement the Church's policies and procedures, including disclosure checks and the Church's response to allegations of abuse.

"There's been a lot of tightening up of the law over the last five years, and it is still changing, and my job is to adapt it for the specific needs of the church," explains Mrs McCaig, a former child protection officer with West Dunbartonshire Council who was appointed by the Bishops' Conference of Scotland when the law came into force in 2005.

Her remit also includes seminarians, staff in care homes run by nuns, and all the religious societies and groups associated with the church.

"It's an ongoing process. The Church recognises it has a duty of care to its parishioners. We want to make sure children and vulnerable adults can participate fully in the life of the church in safety and security. There have been the most terrible, terrible things that have happened within the Church and we have been working to make sure that in Scotland we are doing everything we possibly can to make sure we prevent harm from happening.

"The Church is doing this because of what's happening in the world. So many of us find it hard to believe that priests would abuse, given their calling and vocation. Abuse scandals can shake people's faith," says Mrs McCaig, who was christened in the Church of Scotland but who married a Catholic 38 years ago and has three sons and two grand-daughters.

"Because it's a universal church, what happened in Ireland and America affects parishioners in Scotland. They have been devastated by what's happened. They are going through a hard time and some are even being mocked by so-called friends. That's why it's important that we do what we're doing and are seen to be doing it. Everything is at stake."

The Catholic Church in Scotland is unique in its rigorous approach which includes each parish appointing a lay co-ordinator to support the priest in his duties to his congregation. The practice is seen as the blueprint for the church in other countries. Each year she visits the Vatican to meet her international counterparts. She says with some pride that the bishops of Ireland have signed a memorandum of understanding, committing them to implement similar guidelines.

She also works each year with the 20 or so Scottish seminarians at the Scots College in Rome and at Maynooth seminary in Ireland, and met with first years in Glasgow earlier this month. "It's important that they have an appreciation of the effects of abuse on a child's life and have a grasp of the law in Scotland right from the beginning," she says. "This is as much about protecting them as it is about protecting young people. It has come from knowing that those who wish to harm children will do everything possible to get themselves in positions where they are seen to have a role in the church.

"This works both ways. It's also about the priest protecting himself from dangerous situations."

She states categorically there is "absolutely no evidence" that abuse is more prevalent within the priesthood than in other professions. "If you look at the statistics you'd see that in every profession there will be people who have harmed children in that way. The priesthood has not been excluded from that, but there is certainly no suggestion that Catholic priests have a higher rate. In fact, the statistics would say that they don't. So the whole celibacy argument doesn't hold."

However, she acknowledges that those called to vocations can be especially naive or vulnerable.

"Priests are in a different position from teachers and doctors, who have other things in their lives like a family and a home. But an allegation against a priest could destroy him completely because he could lose everything."

She meets seminarians each year during their seven-year course whether they like it or not. She is supported by Scots College rector Fr John Hughes, who says: "We do take this issue very seriously. It's not just a case of steering clear of scandal; it's a case of making sure we're about what we should be about. Sometimes the students will say, 'But we did that last year'. I say, 'Well, you'll be doing it again next year and the year after that."

Asked if she felt a priest might feel his vocation is being undermined by over-zealous parishioners, Mrs McCaig replies: "For anyone to suggest that safeguarding practice is stopping the wonderful activities of the church is total nonsense, and I will not tolerate that kind of approach.

"I have no difficulty with the authority of the priest in terms of spiritual guidance and nurturing the faith, but in terms of safety, no."

Peter Tobin, the serial sex offender who murdered Angelika Kluk while working as a handyman in St Patrick's RC Church in Anderston, Glasgow, is a case in point.

"We cannot go back to the days of a priest just opening his door and letting everyone come in. The majority of those who have committed sex crimes have not been convicted, so it's not just about disclosure, it's about good practice, working together and knowing what to do if you have concerns about someone. What some volunteers do is wonderul but knowing what we now know, the priest has to manage it and it's his resposibility. A volunteer has to be given, and accept, a clear role description. Priests have to manage their painters, gardeners, decorators, visitors. It's a big ask, but that's where the support of their parishioners comes in.

"I think the Catholic Church can be proud of what it has done over the last five years in terms of developing safe practice. It's not disproportionate or over the top. One child harmed is one child too many. We have no option but to put into practice lessons from the past. But we're only as good as our weakest link."

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