THE public face of the country's top lobbying group for charities has been criticised for launching an outspoken attack against faith schools.

John Downie, a director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), said one of the "key causes" of sectarianism was the existence of denominational education.

He added that "getting rid of faith schools" would help eradicate the blight of religious hatred north of the border.

Bishop Joseph Devine, the President of the Scottish Catholic Education Commission, last night told the Sunday Herald the opinions were "reckless" and "offensive".

The SNP Government has made tackling sectarianism a top priority in its second term.

Legislation passed last year created new offences relating to singing at football matches and internet behaviour.

However, the bill became law in spite of cross-party criticisms that the plans were poorly conceived and vague.

In a blog on the SCVO's website last year, Downie picked up on this theme, arguing that "the Government have the right intention but are taking the wrong action".

He said "the solution" was to focus on the real cause of sectarianism, namely the school system.

Downie said: "In my opinion one key causes [sic] of sectarianism is Scotland continuing to have separate denominational and non-denominational schools...the reality is that separate schools foster estrangement between Catholic and Protestant communities and influence the behaviour of children."

He added: "Yes, the attitudes of parents and grandparents don't help and need to change but, like it or not, separate schools are a huge factor.

"The reality is, it doesn't matter if a school is Catholic, Muslim or non-denominational, it is the attitudes of difference that separate schools perpetuate."

Downie, who said in the piece that he was a Rangers season ticket holder, concluded: "The SNP landslide victory in the election broke Labour's traditional stranglehold in the West of Scotland – if they really want to get rid of sectarianism then getting rid of faith schools would be the bold and right action to take."

All SCVO blogs contain the caveat that "opinions expressed by the bloggers are their own".

Downie was appointed as SCVO head of public affairs in 2009, leading a department that includes the body's policy, research, communications and campaigns staff.

He also has responsibility for the SCVO's "internal and external" engagement with politicians.

His appearances on television effectively make him the body's public face.

Around 1300 charities and voluntary groups are members of the SCVO, which acts as the sector's national voice.

Its members, one of which is the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, employ more than 50,000 people.

Devine said: "Mr Downie has mis-used the SCVO website to make offensive and untenable claims that Catholic Schools are a cause of sectarianism in Scotland.

"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.

"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."

Labour MSP Michael McMahon said: "There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that separate schools creates sectarianism – in fact, the opposite is true.

"If John Downie expressed these views on his own website, then fine, but using the SCVO website is for me stepping over the line. He should apologise."

Neither Downie nor SCVO responded to requests for comment.