Charity boss blames Catholic schools
Publication Date: 2012-02-10
— Bishop Devine and education director challenge sectarianism allegation; MSP calls for apology or resignation
The Church in Scotland is angered and dismayed at claims by a leading charity executive that Catholic schools promote sectarianism.
John Downie, director of public policy for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), made the allegations in a blog on his organisation’s website.
Ahead of Catholic Education Week, Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell, president of the Commission for Catholic Education, and Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES), have challenged Mr Downie’s allegations, questioning the tenability of his position at the publicly funded SCVO. Catholic MSP Michael McMahon has called for the charity boss’s resignation if no apology is forthcoming.
The SCVO is an umbrella group that represents charities, including the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), and other public bodies, and drew support for its recent campaign on a better quality of debate on Scottish independence from groups including Action for Churches Together.
Mr Downie’s SCVO blog makes a sustained but unsubstantiated attack on Catholic schools, claiming they are a primary cause of sectarianism in Scotland.
“In my opinion, one key cause of sectarianism is Scotland continuing to have separate denominational and non-denominational schools,” Mr Downie writes. “The Scottish Government needs to recognise that Scotland is not now a religious country and that they over-estimate the real power of the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland, they don’t now influence how people vote or think.”
Bishop Devine said Mr Downie, who originally posted the remarks in June 2011, did not know what he was talking about.
“Mr Downie has misused the SCVO website to make offensive and untenable claims that Catholic schools are a cause of sectarianism in Scotland,” Bishop Devine said. “Such an intervention is not what one would expect to read on the official website of a respected social agency that is expected to champion co-operation, harmony and tolerance between autonomous but interdependent groups for the greater social good of Scotland.”
The bishop also stated that Mr Downie had no evidence for his claims because none existed. “Should Mr Downie be able to provide evidence to support his malicious representation of Catholic education let him do so,” he said. “Like me, 95 per cent of Catholic parents and a significant percentage of parents of other religious denominations who send their children to Catholic schools would be pleased to examine it.
“If he has no evidence to support his reckless claims perhaps he would have the good grace to withdraw them and better spend his time and energy promoting the interests of his members instead.”
Bishop Devine also said that in allowing such controversial material to be published on its website, Mr Downie had compromised the ability of the SCVO to represent its Catholic members.
“It is all very well pointing out that the opinions expressed by the SCVO’s director of public affairs, Mr Downie, are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisations within the family of SCVO, but in practice it seems somewhat problematic and a cause for concern that his views, contained within SCVO’s official website, not only contradict but manifestly insult a significant percentage of the Scottish population, many of whom one would imagine are active supporters of many of the charities and voluntary organisations associated with SCVO,” he added. “Of course Mr Downie as a private citizen is perfectly entitled to express his opinions on anything he chooses but the juxtaposition of Mr Downie’s personal blog within SCVO’s website is not healthy.”
Mr McGrath of SCES said that Mr Downie’s comments were ‘unacceptable’
“His comments were unacceptable coming from an executive of a body that receives government funding,” he said. “As executive of a quango he has no right to voice such a prejudiced opinion. I would challenge him to look at his position because he has no facts to back it up. The SCVO claims to represent Catholic organisations and others with Catholic members, but they are not doing so by airing such comments.”
Mr Downie, a Rangers FC season ticket holder, claimed his views were an acceptable form of free speech and that the issue was ‘complicated.’
“Eight months ago I wrote a blog on the issues surrounding the sectarian bill being debated in the Scottish Parliament,” he said. “In it I expressed my personal view that in the fight to eradicate sectarianism we should not continue to have separate denominational and non-denominational schools in Scotland.”
Despite being unable to produce evidence to support his assertions, Mr Downie claimed his remarks were not an attack on Catholic schools.
“These comments were not an attack on either the Catholic Church or the Catholic education system. I wouldn’t as my wife was brought up within both of them,” he said. “It is a complicated issue but we have a responsibility to debate this, and in a democratic country I can have a different opinion. I would encourage your readers to read my blog post in full and make up their own minds about what I said rather than taking heed of the contrived and misleading media reports that have appeared over the last day or so.”
In spite of this, Mr Downie’s views have attracted political condemnation. Catholic MSP Michael McMahon of the Scottish Labour Party said Mr Downie should consider his position.
“Firstly, he has an official public role and therefore should know he cannot speak on such important issues as an individual,” the Uddingston and Bellshill MSP said. “He has either been foolish or calculating. The choice is between bad and worse. It gives me no pleasure to call on John Downie’s public apology, and if not then his resignation.”
The Scottish Government’s Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham, also a Catholic, repudiated Mr Downie’s views.
“Diversity in Scottish education is a great source of this country’s strength and richness,” the MSP for Pershire and Kinrosshire, said. “Faith-based education has made a vital contribution to Scottish society and the right of parents to make that choice for their children remains an important part of our school system.”
The Scottish Government’s first legislative action against bigotry and sectarianism, The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, comes into affect next month.
— Catholic Education Week six-page special section in this week’s print edition of The Scottish Catholic Observer
PIC: PAUL McSHERRY