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Welcome change in Catholic Church

THE response of the Bishop of Aberdeen Hugh Gilbert to the allegations of child abuse at the Fort Augustus Catholic boarding school contains none of the language we have become used to from the church over the years on this difficult subject.

No avoidance, no aggression, no denial - only humility, an apology and an apparent willingness to act. As the latest move in a long-running and shameful scandal it is a potentially striking change in direction from the leadership of the Catholic church in Scotland.

The statement, delivered by Bishop Gilbert during mass yesterday, is remarkable for three main reasons: its speed, its tone, and what it says. The latest allegations around Fort Augustus were made in a BBC Scotland programme just a few days ago and yet here we have a quick and heartfelt apology. Should anyone doubt what a change this represents, contrast what Bishop of Aberdeen has said with the reaction of his predecessor Mario Conti in 1998 to the allegations of abuse against nuns at the Poor Sisters of Nazareth homes. Even though one of the nuns was later convicted, the claims were described as fantastical. It was also implied that at least some of the accusers had been tempted by the promise of compensation.

Yesterday's statement by the Bishop of Aberdeen is entirely different and effectively calls for a police investigation in to the allegations around Fort Augustus. This is another striking break with the past. Historic scandals in the Church appear to show that the standard response to allegations of abuse was to move the accused to another parish, or another country, and hope the problem would go away (in the case of Fort Augustus, one of the priests facing allegations is now living in Australia). Certainly, the Church always appeared reluctant to refer such matters to the police. Whether allegations are true or not, this is no way to deal with such a serious matter.

Thankfully, the Bishop of Aberdeen has now taken an entirely different approach - albeit after intense media coverage has forced the matter - by indicating that the affair should be referred to the police. This is how it should be. There are some observers who argue it should be illegal for the church to withhold allegations of child abuse from the police but the duty of the church is clear: allegations of child abuse should be referred to the police as quickly as possible.

The Bishop of Aberdeen appears to accept this and says the abuse of victims is bitter, shaming and distressing. He also says that all that can be done should be done for the victims.

It is the kind of language many of those victims have waited a long time to hear. Why it is coming now is uncertain - perhaps it is inspired by the new, more tolerant tone from a new Pope - but it is most welcome nonetheless. At long last, the approach at the top of the Catholic Church may be changing.

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