Spotlight on safeguarding culture


A Catholic laywoman offers an initial reflection independent audits of safeguarding in two Scottish Catholic dioceses.

In the last week of January 2020, the Independent Review Group (IRG), led by Baroness Helen Liddell, which was set up in response to the McLellan report on safeguarding in the Catholic Church in Scotland, published safeguarding audits of the dioceses of Galloway and St Andrews & Edinburgh.

For those interested in ensuring that the church has learned lessons and is improving, it is a relief to see these long overdue reports. It has been nine months since the audits began and over six months since it was reported that they were complete, that final checks were underway and publication was imminent.

The audits landed the day before Open House’s publication deadline. They are lengthy and deserve careful reading. Immediate reflection, however, suggest that many concerns have been flagged up, especially in the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh.

In August 2015, following the publication of the McLellan Report, Archbishop Tartaglia, then President of the Scottish Bishops’ Conference, offered a profound apology to all victims of abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests or religious. He also apologised to those who ‘found the Church’s response slow, unsympathetic or uncaring’. The bishops pledged to implement all McLellan’s recommendations.

It may be useful to review the timeline.

November 2013: McLellan Commission announced.

August 2015: McLellan report published.

December 2016: Baroness Helen Liddell appointed to chair the independent review group.

The Bishops’ Conference promised that the group would be ‘transparent and fearless’1 and would operate separately from the church to review safeguarding standards and carry out independent audits.

May 2017: First meeting of the IRG.

January 2018: Andrew McLellan (and six other members of the Commission) publicly

complain that the Catholic Church in Scotland is ignoring abuse, has had ‘no meaningful

contact with survivors’2 and independent scrutiny has not been introduced.

May 2019: First IRG report published.  New procedures are being introduced but cultural

change is most important and there is much more to be done. Two independent audits

(Galloway and St Andrews & Edinburgh) have been conducted, but final audit conclusions

are not included in this report. A further six audits are foreshadowed.

January 2020: Audit reports of Galloway and St Andrews & Edinburgh are published.

There is no argument that the audits are worthwhile but at the current rate of progress it will be well into the 2020s before the ‘as is’ position is documented and reviewed. There does not appear to be any mechanism to ensure that audit recommendations are implemented. Is this the start of an ongoing audit process or a one-off exercise?

Nothing in the audit reports explains, or apologises for, the delay in publication, but there are some clues in the latest minutes of the Bishops Conference (November 2019):

Independent Review Group (IRG)
Baroness Helen Liddell gave the conference an update on the work of the IRG and the two diocesan audits already conducted.
Three members of the IRG also attended: Lisa Markham, Gordon Jeyes and Donald Urquhart.
Baroness Liddell expressed her hope that the diocesan audits of St. Andrews & Edinburgh and Galloway would soon be concluded and highlighted their purpose as collaborative processes. There was a wide-ranging discussion on how concerns about the conduct of the audits might be addressed and resolved in future. It was agreed that a Memorandum of Understanding was the best way to set out the relationship between the IRG, the auditing body and a diocese

Anyone familiar with audit processes will be struck by the mention of a Memorandum of Understanding in the final stages of report completion. Why was it needed at this stage? It deals with issues like mediation, arbitration and agreement on the final audit reports and has been published along with the audit reports by the bishops’ conference.

External scrutiny

The two audit reports comment on the absence of external scrutiny in the current safeguarding model, where responsibility rests with the bishop. Without external scrutiny, the IRG argues, the system will be challenged by conflicts of interest and it will compromise the independent management of risks and the relationship with the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service.

Fortunately, there are international examples of external scrutiny which can serve as models.

In the United Sates safeguarding audits are undertaken by private practice auditors (Stonebridge) who specialise in compliance audits. In the year July 2017 to July 2018 they visited 72 dioceses and collected data from 122 others.

In Australia, responsibility for the development and auditing of safeguarding standards across Church and religious institution rests with the independent CPSL (Catholic Professional Standards Limited). The Board of Directors are lay people with professional expertise in governance, law, education, child protection, human services, safeguarding and regulation. There are no clergy or religious on the board. CPSL publicise their audit framework and approach on their webpages as well as reporting timeframes for the completions of audits. A young organisation, formed in 2017, the completed 4 pilot and 3 complete audits in the year to July 2019.

Closer to home the Diocese of Birmingham was audited by the Social Care Institute of Excellence, a government improvement agency, on behalf of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Focussed on selected case studies, the audit was carried out in the summer of 2018 and published in October 2018. Audit scope was set by the Inquiry.


With respect to the Diocese of Galloway, the Scottish IRG report conclusions are generally positive. The culture has improved, with a more positive spirit of engagement with laity and survivors. The report concludes that Bishop Nolan has worked hard ‘to demonstrate leadership across the Diocese’. The report also acknowledged his efforts in promoting the importance of safeguarding.

The picture from St Andrews & Edinburgh is more mixed. Seven years on, the O’Brien scandal, a story of misbehaviour, cover up and preferment still casts a long shadow. The IRG report acknowledges process improvements but in the more difficult area of culture it admits that there are still concerns.

Writing in Open House a few weeks after the O’Brien scandal became public, Joe Fitzpatrick and Joe Boland (‘First steps in a long journey’, April 2013) reflected on the impact of the scandal and considered what had to be done to repair the damage. The culture then was one of reluctance to report and there were general fears that allegations would be dismissed because of the seniority of the accused. Did the audit find that things had improved?

In a section headed Culture (2.14), the audit report on the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh asserts that the most critical aspect of safeguarding relates to the culture within any organisation. It discerns ‘the start of a culture’ in St Andrews & Edinburgh where safeguarding is a priority and is seen as everybody’s business. A robust safeguarding culture, which ensures that the Church is a safe place, is one in which all members have the ability to ‘think the unthinkable about friends and colleagues’ and where safeguarding processes are applied without fear or favour. According to the audit report, ‘significant concerns were raised consistently from a wide range of different perspectives about the process for reaching decisions and the response when such decisions are challenged’.

The auditors express concerns about the ability of St Andrews & Edinburgh to manage complaints impartially, transparently and confidentially. Yet there is no consequence for that failure. According to some contributors (a group which includes survivors, families, clergy, laity and multi-agency partners) a 2017 re-organisation of the Curia and the Pastoral Resources Team had led to ‘a loss of experience in relation to pastoral care and therefore the links between pastoral care and safeguarding’.

Contributors also had ‘significant misgivings in their trust of the system… some did not fully trust the process… There was a strong feeling from contributors that the process of discipline, suspension or laicisation was not equitable across the Archdiocese and that clerics were treated differently depending on their perceived support of the Archdiocese or their theological stance’.

In one of the most concerning paragraphs of the report ‘the auditors were left less confident about the treatment of clerics against whom concerns had been raised or allegations made. Information about the situations and the reasons for decisions taken were often opaque and not communicated to those involved; a feeling of frustration with senior leaders and the safeguarding office was commonly heard by the auditors’.

The auditors heard concerns about suspicion and mistrust. Paragraph 2.14.20 of their report says that while confidentiality is important, ‘the need for privacy and confidentiality was often thought to be the public reason given to close down discussions or difficult conversations. The balance between sharing information and confidentiality is difficult to achieve; some may perceive that discussions verge on ‘gossip’, but at times some discussion is needed to allow individuals and organisations to clarify issues to move forward and this has not been effective within the Archdiocese leading to the suspicion and mistrust heard by the auditors’.

This cannot be another moment where we tick a box and move on. In August this year it will be five years since the McLellan Commission reported and so far, safeguarding policies have been updated and the IRG has been established, but the process of implementing a regime of independent review seems to have stalled, exactly two years after Andrew McLellan made the same complaint.

The audit reports on both dioceses are available on their websites and on the website of the Bishops’ Conference.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.