THE Catholic church in Scotland has been savaged by children's rights campaigners for declaring its opposition to a ban on smacking.

Plans to outlaw the physical punishment of children would "criminalise parents", according to one of the church's top officials who added "it is not the role of the state to interfere" in parenting, apart from in "the most exceptional circumstances".

Last night, Scotland's Children and Young People's Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, condemned the stance, saying that the church position over child protection was "concerning". He said religious faith was being used to justify opposition to a smacking ban.

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Adamson pointed out that many nations with Catholic majorities – such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal – had already outlawed hitting children.

Green MSP John Finnie, a former police officer who introduced the parliamentary bill to ban smacking, also attacked the church's position. He said the Scottish Catholic church was at out of step with international opinion and that smacking had been banned in nations such as Argentina – the home country of Pope Francis.

The SNP Government has confirmed it will ensure Finnie's bill becomes law - this would make Scotland the first part of the UK to outlaw smacking. The ban has been supported by the Church of Scotland and children's charity NSPCC Scotland.

However, the Sunday Herald has now learned that the Catholic church backs the status quo in Scotland where parents can claim a legal defence of "justifiable assault" when punishing their child.

The Sunday Herald has made repeated requests to the church's media office asking for its view after the Government stated its support for a smacking ban.

When asked last November, we were told: “Passed your query to our Parliamentary office – they’re monitoring the proposed legislation and won’t offer any comment on it at the moment.”

However, Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office – an agency of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, the leadership of the church – has now broken the silence. He restated a claim by the pro-smacking group – Be Reasonable – that most voters believe “parental smacking of children should not be a criminal offence”.

He also highlighted a poll commissioned by the group which it claimed showed overwhelming public opposition to a ban.

Horan said: “In 2017, a ComRes poll found that only 14 per cent of the 1,010 adults polled actually support the proposed ban on smacking and 74 per cent said that parental smacking of children should not be a criminal offence.

“Additionally, 75 per cent said that they agreed with the statement that ‘it should be the role of parents and guardians to decide whether or not to smack their children'."

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Polling showed, he said, that most people thought it was the “role of parents and guardians to decide whether or not to smack their children".

He said: “Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights is relevant to the debate on criminalising parents for disciplining their children. It states that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

In a separate online article for the Catholic Parliamentary Office, Horan said: "A bill brought forward by Green MSP John Finnie which would criminalise parents for chastising their children appears to have little public support."

Horan added: "It is not the role of the state to interfere in how parents go about building a strong relationship with their children, except in the most exceptional circumstances."

Children's Commissioner Bruce Adamson has now called on the church to review its position, saying: "I'd go stronger than just saying I'm disappointed because it's really concerning that this argument is being used. They need to have a very serious conversation because faith shouldn't be used as a justification for children not having equal protection,

"There's a very clear human rights obligation to protect children and we need to press ahead with it as a matter of urgency. Countries with a Catholic majority like Spain, Portugal and Ireland have this protection for children so I don't see how that argument can be used."

His predecessor, Tam Baillie, said the church's stance may also be unrepresentative of Catholics in Scotland. He highlighted the Church of Scotland's support for a ban, adding: "That makes it all the more stark with this refusal [by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland] to protect our children."

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Baillie said: "As a nation we are now quite isolated in Europe by using a defence of justifiable assault. We are one of the last in Europe to wake up to this. The church should look at the evidence as the state has got a responsibility to all its citizens and this is about giving equal protection to children. This is about the protection of the most vulnerable sections of society and I really welcome the bill."

Green MSP John Finnie said: “It’s unfortunate that the Catholic Church in Scotland is unable at this time to join with the Church of Scotland and Humanist Society Scotland in supporting legislation for equal protection.

“It’s regrettable that it did not engage with the consultation process because, if they had, we could have found time to discuss how to get the church on board with my proposals to give children the same protection from assault that is currently enjoyed by the rest of society.”

He added: “Scotland won’t be one of the first countries to prohibit the corporal punishment of children. France pressed ahead with legislation last year and Pope Francis’s native country Argentina has outlawed the practice because, as evidence shows, physical punishment is detrimental to children’s long-term health and wellbeing.”

Finnie's bill is expected to be formally introduced to Holyrood by the summer.

A spokesman from NSPCC Scotland also challenged the Catholic church over smacking. The spokesman said: “It is simply wrong that a legal defence, which does not exist in cases where adults are assaulted, can be used to justify striking a child. It is time it was removed.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said a ban on smacking was backed by the vast majority of people.

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The government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government supports positive parenting.

"This proposed Bill will give children the same legal protections as adults – something backed by an overwhelming majority of public opinion – and end the defence of ‘justifiable assault’.

"We will continue to offer funding for family support services to help parents and carers.”

The Sunday Herald approached the Catholic church media office and parliamentary office for further comment about the criticism of its stance.

However, both failed to supply a comment.