BY Daniel Harkins | September 28 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Bishops reveal struggles over ‘ineffective’ visa system for foreign priests

The Catholic hierarchy has opened up about the Church’s struggles bringing foreign priests and religious to ­Scotland, both as full-time clergy and for supply work.

The matter has become so fraught that official meetings were arranged last year between UK Church ­representatives and the Home Office in order to try and help resolve some of the obstacles facing dioceses ­recruitment.

The Catholic hierarchy has opened up about the Church’s struggles bringing ­foreign priests and religious to ­Scotland, both as full-time clergy and for supply work.
The matter has become so fraught that official meetings were arranged last year between UK Church ­representatives and the Home Office in order to try and help resolve some of the obstacles facing dioceses ­recruitment.

The problem peaked with a level of beurucracy that saw the Home Office try to enforce the Resident Labour Market Test. This would mean adverts being placed in the local job centres seeking unemployed priests who were ‘out of work.’

The plan was quickly quashed after objections, however problems remain regarding cost, language tests, ­medical ­requirements and lengthy processing times, which have had an adverse affect on bringing priests and religious from abroad.

The process is expensive for each diocese as they each have to pay for a licence which allows them to issue certificates of sponsorship to priests and religious.
Thereafter, administration fees cost £1,000 per priest or religious, with a further £1,000 allocated to airfares.

If, for instance, a diocese were to bring 10 supply priests from overseas during the summer to cover priests holidays, the costs would amount to £20,000.
Dioceses are often given short notice of their candidate’s approval of visa before their expected arrival date, which results in an expensive cost for booking flights, and if a visa is refused, none of the money handed over to the Home Office is given back to the Church.

Pillar to post

Bishop John Keenan of Paisley ­Diocese said: “We have had, in the last couple of years, priests that were going to come for holidays or to work from Africa put through painstaking processes and were sent from pillar to post.”

Referring to the Home Office, he said: “As people of Faith, we can ­certainly say ‘you can’t simply just think of yourself, you’ve got to have a care for the needy.
“From a bishop’s point of view, we teach Catholic social principals, but it’s for civic society to draw that line, which is fair enough. What I would say is that it’s not fair to have a ­system that’s deliberately opaque and ­ineffective—it’s the administration side of things that’s hostile.”

The checks that each diocese carries out on each incoming priest or ­religious are very structured and ­thorough, yet the Home Office has been known to turn down candidates even if all relevant protocols have been met.

Bishop Brian McGee of Argyll and Isles Diocese said: “I fully appreciate that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure who enters and leaves the country.
“However, it is increasingly ­difficult to arrange for priests to come over, due to extra standards being imposed. These, of course, apply ­universally and not just to priests.

“We have three priests from outside ­Scotland but from the EU—England, Malta, Poland. There are no ­restrictions presently. We have two priests from Nigeria—one ­incardinated and one on loan.

“I also must say that we have never had a refusal for a visa. I do not think that the process puts religious orders or individual priests off applying for a visa. It just makes the process more anxious for us when we are ­depending on someone arriving within a time frame.”

Bishop Stephen Robson of Dunkeld Diocese said: “From time to time we have had problems with visas—­especially with the Sisters and with priests who have wanted to travel to Europe and who could not get a visa for this. The procedures seem ­cumbersome but have not as yet become too onerous for those ­concerned—just too bureaucratic.

“At the moment I have four priests from Kerala who are working here: two from the Capuchin Franciscans of the Latin Rite and two from the ­Congregation of St Theresa in the Syro-Malabar Rite.

“I have three Nigerian priests also: one from the Congregation of St Paul who is director of youth formation and two diocesan priests, one of whom is now incardinated into the diocese—the other has now ministered here for about nine years. I also have one Nigerian seminarian who previously studied in Europe. I have one Maltese priest also and two Polish priests, who obviously have no problem with immigration procedures at present, i.e. before Brexit.

“I also have five Nigerian Sisters who are from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and who run the diocesan centre excellently.”

Frustration

The Catholic Church have ­previously called for more help for vulnerable people affected by visa and ­immigration costs, including EU ­citizens who will be affected by the UK leaving the EU.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow Archdiocese recently told the diocesan newspaper Flourish that both as bishop of Paisley and as ­archbishop of Glasgow he had ­supported the cases of refugee ­families fighting to remain in the UK.

“I am perplexed by ambivalent ­public attitudes towards refugees and migrants and I am frustrated that it is so difficult to bring foreign priests to work here as a result of stringent immigration regulations on migrant religious workers,” he said.

The UK as a whole and in ­particular Scotland is facing a growing shortage of priests.

There have been examples of inconsistencies in the approach to ­applications, with Visas granted one year and refused the next, despite the applications being made on the same basis and with the same ­evidence.

Bishop William Nolan of Galloway Diocese said: “We did try to bring in some Indian priests a few years ago without success—they did not ­manage to acquire visas.
“However since then there have been meetings in England between ­government officials and the Catholic Church about immigration problems.

“There is just one African priest in Galloway, Fr Gabriel, who has taken over as parish priest in Galston and Hurlford. His visa was arranged by the Spiritans.”

—Additional reporting by Ryan McDougall

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