ROME – With clerical abuse scandals rocking the Catholic Church in all corners of the globe, Scottish Archbishop Leo Cushley said that as someone who has given his life to the institution, he’s ashamed but also convinced that the Church, especially in Scotland, is in a “dramatically different” place today.
Referring to scandals that have erupted in Chile, Peru and the United States, among others, Cushley said each one is a cause of concern, “because this is an institution that I love and that I’ve given my life to, and I’m very dismayed when I see these things.”
In a sit-down interview with Crux, Cushley, Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, said he can only speak authoritatively about the Church in Scotland, where he and his fellow prelates look at the abuse crisis “with great shame and great regret and that we wish it could be otherwise, but we do absolutely everything we can to get this right.”
What happened in the past, while tragic, is “dramatically different” than the current context, he said, voicing belief that at least on the home front, “we are doing very, very well indeed by any independent judgement or set of statistics.”
Cushley is currently in Rome for the Scottish bishops’ ad limina visit, which typically takes place every five years and is an opportunity for bishops to meet with the pope and Vatican departments. He will also participate in the upcoming Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on youth.
The Scottish bishops, whose visit is taking place at the same time as that of the bishops from England and Wales, met Pope Francis right off the bat. With discussions being less formal than in the past, as each bishop has the chance to speak or ask questions rather than listen to a prepared text, the prelates, who represent each of Scotland’s eight dioceses, came with a simple bullet-point list of the major issues they wanted to discuss, the first of which was safeguarding.
In his comments to Crux, Cushley, whose diocese is barely starting to recover from the 2013 scandals surrounding his predecessor, the late Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said one of the things Francis asked him to do after taking the reins was to “reform the local Church. To do it with gentleness, but also to be firm.”
O’Brien, who died in April, stepped down in 2013 after it was revealed that he had made sexual advances to seminarians 20 years prior. Cushley, who previously worked as an English-language official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, took O’Brien’s place shortly after the prelate stepped down.
Cushley said one of the things he did just three days after his episcopal consecration was to approve an independent historical review of what the Church had done to respond to abuse cases dating back to 1947. The bishops set up a commission headed by Andrew McLellan to carry out the investigation, which concluded its work in 2015 and published a report, called “the McLellan report,” which detailed past abuse, mistakes, good practices, as well as a series of recommendations.
“It seemed necessary and urgent” to carry out the investigation, Cushley said, not only to “put peoples’ minds at ease,” but also to ensure transparency. The Scottish bishops, he said, accepted each of the recommendations made and have developed anti-abuse policies that have been published online, and which were given to Francis on Thursday.
“We thought it would be important to let him see that, understand that and to have a physical copy of that,” Cushley said, adding that the Scottish bishops also gave a copy of the new policies to Monsignor Bob Oliver, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Cushley said Scotland also has an independent review group headed by former Labor Party minister Baroness Helen Liddell, and which is about to begin their first assessment. The group, Cushley said, has chosen to start with two of Scotland’s eight dioceses, selecting Galloway and his own archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.
The probe, he said, will begin with the bishop and will eventually work its way through each of the safeguarding personnel in the diocese. This review, Cushley said, is “an opportunity that I welcome to get this right.”
“We want to get ahead of this, we want to do the right thing, and we are impatient to resolve any issues that remain. We can only do what we can with the time given to us to try to get it right, and I know that every one of the bishops wants to get this right, and that our priests and our people want us to get it right too.”
With the synod of bishops less than a week away, Cushley voiced fear that the abuse crisis will overshadow the month-long discussion, because “it’s on peoples’ minds, especially the people coming from the United States, or Chile or elsewhere.”
Yet while the topic is sure to be a point of discussion, Cushley said the main point, which is to help young people, will not be lost.
Youth, he said, “want a word of encouragement. The young people I meet, they want to know about the faith in Jesus Christ, they want to know and love Jesus Christ, and they want an example of that, they want a witness of that from me, from my fellow priests, deacons, men and women.”
Cushley said he is often encouraged by the young people he meets, because thanks to digital communications they’re aware of what’s happening in the world, so when they come to him, “they don’t ask me to sugarcoat Catholicism for them. They want to know what it is to be a Catholic because they’ve seen what the rest are proposing.”
Youth don’t want “just a light-weight version of that or an easy version of that,” he said.
Noting how many young people voiced a desire for a Church that’s honest, transparent and unafraid to engage them on difficult and taboo issues during a pre-synod meeting held in Rome in March, Cushely said he believes the October synod is an opportunity to have these frank discussions.
“I don’t see why not. Why shouldn’t we want that?” he said. “It should be in our DNA, so I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible.”