LEICESTER, United Kingdom – While noting improvement in safeguarding standards in the Church in Scotland, a new report says putting in place structures that safeguard the vulnerable still presents challenges.

The Second Annual Report of the Independent Review Group (IRG) monitoring the implementation of the recommendations of the McLellan Commission by the Catholic Church was released on June 26.

Safeguarding practices in the Scottish Catholic Church were first reviewed by the McLellan Commission, set up in 2013. In August 2015 the commission published a report recommending external and independent scrutiny of polices and practice, and the bishops responded by establishing the review group in May 2017. The IRG is headed by Baroness Helen Liddell, the former UK Secretary of State of Scotland.

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“We must never forget that survivors of abuse are at the heart of our work. We need to learn from them and through that put in place structures that safeguard the vulnerable. All of us have a part to play, not just clergy but laity too,” Liddell said.

“It must be made easier for those with complaints to feel safe and secure coming forward. There must be consistency in investigation, compassion in caring for those who are victims and first-class professional help for those who need it. A constant striving to do better will lead to improved training and a willingness to learn from the best practice of others,” she continued.

Last year, the IRG began conducting a professional audit of each of the eight dioceses in Scotland, on the basis of two a year. The first two were the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and the Diocese of Galloway, and this year the Dioceses of Motherwell and Aberdeen were due to undergo the process, although the COVID-19 pandemic has indefinitely postponed the audit.

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The latest report says challenges remain as the Church in Scotland “moves from the necessary focus on ensuring consistency in its operational arrangements towards a more challenging and reflective focus on evaluating the impact of its actions.”

“Cultural change is still required to ensure that safeguarding is a core element of all aspects of the work of the Church. There remains a particular need to reflect on the role of survivors and their ability to contribute to and inform future provision. Furthermore, there is a need to develop a clear and coherent ‘whistleblowers’ policy,” the report says.

The report notes diocesan safeguarding plans, as yet, do not contain sufficient focus on measuring improvements to services for vulnerable adults, young people and children.

“As skills in self-evaluation and review also develop this can help the Church be more proactive in ensuring continuous improvement. This is particularly important in addressing the need to put survivors at the heart of this process so that justice can be both delivered and be seen to be delivered for those who have been affected by allegations of abuse within the Church. It is therefore essential that there is stronger emphasis on evaluating the response to each and every concern raised,” the report continues.

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The IRG also recommends establishing an independent, national office “to hold safeguarding in the Church in Scotland to account,” offering the Irish National Safeguarding Office as a potential model.

Independence along the lines of the Irish model by establishing a charitable limited company would provide the opportunity to provide safeguarding strategic leadership, and expertise in planning without in any way contradicting the independence of the dioceses,” the report explains.

The IRG made several recommendations, including a review of each diocese’s policy statements on access and support for survivors, the establishment of a ‘learning network’ among diocesan safeguarding representatives , the inclusion of survivor perspectives in diocesan improvement plans, offering clarity on fairness and justice with a review regarding “consideration of the balance of probability following an allegation ensuring the needs of the complainant are foremost while balancing the range of interests involved,” and the promotion of “a theology of safeguarding.”

Bishop Joseph Toal, President of the Scottish bishops’ conference Commission for Pastoral and Social Care, said he welcomed the publication of the IRG’s second annual report, “which will be given careful consideration.”

“Safeguarding remains at the heart of the church’s mission and the maintenance of high standards is only possible through independent scrutiny of an autonomous body like the IRG that works separately from the Catholic Church,” Toal said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome