Wednesday, 6 March 2013

LGBT adopters and OSCR's latest decision: putting children first

This week is LGBT Adoption and Fostering week, a great initiative organised by New Family Social, an organisation dedicated to supporting LGBT adopters and foster carers. There’s a critical shortage of parents in the UK at the moment. And many LGBT people are in an ideal position to offer a loving and supporting home to a child or children that needs one.

To mark the week, the agency whose board I chair, Scottish Adoption, organised an event for prospective LGBT adopters as part of our commitment to widening the pool of adoptive parents. As a gay adoptee myself I was really proud to open the event and welcome those who’d come along to take the first steps on their adoption journey. Adopting a child is a privilege, but it’s courageous too. Taking a child who needs a loving home into the privacy of one’s family is no small act of public service.

My opening remarks were short and to the point. At Scottish Adoption we’re committed to providing a quality service that’s in the best interests of children. Being inclusive isn’t an added extra. It’s fundamental to that commitment to quality. As our chief executive, Margaret Moyes blogged today, last year we approved six LGBT adopters, as well as single adopters and others from a diverse range of backgrounds.  Last night’s event will hopefully see those numbers rise in the coming year. 

We’re not doing this to replace those who have more traditionally been part of our adoption pool such as heterosexual couples who have been unable to have children. They remain crucial to us too and over 90 years we’ve built up great expertise at working with them. We’re doing it to diversify and strengthen our pool of adopters because the children we’re here to support have diverse needs too. 

So I wish those who came along last night well. Many of them will go on to make a real difference to the lives of children who need to be adopted.

And then this morning in a timely development, came the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator’s decision on a review of a direction it served on one of our sister voluntary agencies in February, St Margaret’s Children and Family Care society. I blogged about the direction then and you can read OSCR’s decision on the review here.

OSCR’s decision is very clear. It has found that St Margaret’s doesn’t provide public benefit because the way it provides benefit involves unlawful discrimination which causes detriment to particular groups of people. These include same sex couples. And it has concluded that St Margaret’s discriminates directly on the grounds of religion or belief and sexual orientation. It rejected the arguments put forward by St Margaret’s including the claim that it was entitled to claim an exception under the 2010 Equality Act. The rejection is based on the fact that it’s an adoption agency and not a church or a religious community.

St Margaret’s had also claimed that other adoption agencies have disassociated themselves from the Catholic church. I’m very clear that Scottish Adoption has not done that and as a gay Catholic nor would I wish it to. Catholic people are as welcome as anyone else to get in touch with Scottish Adoption to be considered as prospective adopters and some of them may of course be LGBT themselves. That’s what a diverse approach is all about.

The timing of this decision is very tough for St Margaret’s. It comes not just in LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week but in a week of crisis for the Catholic church in Scotland. That said I welcome the decision. As I said in my previous blog, I want St Margaret’s to thrive, because it has long held experience and expertise that the sector can ill afford to lose. But I don’t think this can be at the expense of equality.

St Margaret’s has until 22 April to comply with the charity test set by OSCR and in the meantime has a right of appeal against the review decision. I hope it will now focus on how it can respond positively to the challenge posed by OSCR.  The turnout at Scottish Adoption’s event last night shows what a valuable resource exists amongst LGBT people. The potential impact of all adoption agencies opening their doors to them is very clear.

The real winners will be children.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Which way now for the Scottish Catholic establishment?

Cardinal O’Brien’s brief statement this afternoon will have shaken the foundations of the Catholic church in Scotland. And the repercussions will surely be felt much further afield at what is already a difficult moment for the Vatican. 

Before today’s statement it had been suggested that the allegations represented a personal tragedy for O'Brien. On some level that may be true, though right now sympathy from many people may be in short supply. 

Even more importantly this should be a sobering moment for the Scottish Catholic establishment.

O’Brien’s statement begins by stating that he contested the initial allegations because they were ‘anonymous and non-specific’. Even if that was true, the fact that he clearly knew of moments in his past which were of a similar nature should call into question his honesty and integrity for the rebuttal.

His statement goes on to say that he wishes to apologise to those he has offended and asks for their forgiveness.  Forgiveness is of course one of the hallmarks of Christian faith. As a Catholic I believe in it passionately. But it’s worth thinking about what his statement means and to whom.

His apology for ‘sexual conduct’ comes in the light of a sustained attack on lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  This was an attack in which he has suggested that gay people were ‘captives of sexual aberrations.’  He argued that same-sex relationships ‘are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved.’ Last year he went on to say that same sex marriage was a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.’ 

I could go on but you get the point. This vague admission of ‘sexual conduct’ which ‘fell below the standards’ expected of him, comes from a man who has consistently used his position as an influential religious leader to spread obscene and deeply harmful messages to lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Does his apology to those who he has offended extend to them?

His apology is presumably directed at least in part at those who share his public views on homosexuality and same sex marriage. But even if you do, what are you to make of the hypocrisy at the heart of knowing all along that such moments were part of your past? Of then contesting allegations and then when the pressure mounted coming clean?

And if you were abused as a child by a Catholic priest, what on earth must you be thinking now? 

And then we come to the Catholic establishment in Scotland. At the very least this has been a public relations disaster. At most it smells far worse than that. This is an establishment who has installed Archbishop Tartagila temporarily in Cardinal O’Brien’s place. Tartaglia, in case we should forget it, was the Catholic leader responsible for the appalling homophobic attack last year on the late David Cairns, an openly gay MP and former Catholic priest. 

And this is an establishment whose media director, Peter Kearney, tried to suggest on Newsnight Scotland earlier this week that Cardinal O’Brien’s early resignation had nothing to do with the allegations which had emerged. Kearney’s position looked absurd and questionable at the time. What are we to make of it in the light of this afternoon’s events?

What do these things tell us about the Scottish Catholic establishment’s handling of this moment? Grossly inept and insensitive for sure. But is it any wonder that people are asking who knew what and when? Let’s face it if this was a public institution, heads would be rolling and the consequences would be dire.

What will the Catholic church establishment do now? These events, like those in Rome of late, have laid bare the culture of institutional secrecy at the heart of the church establishment. With secrecy comes vulnerability. And with vulnerability comes allegations and exposure. Closed institutions which lack accountability and are disconnected from their grassroots are inherently unhealthy.   Will the church establishment finally face up to the truth staring right at it?

There is no shortage of questions in this piece. The Catholic church establishment in Scotland has a great deal to think about.