As police investigate yet another anti-Catholic incident on the streets of Scotland we must ask ourselves how much longer the Catholic community needs to suffer before their plight is taken seriously.
The Scottish Government continues to be reticent about the deep rooted anti-Catholic problem of modern Scotland: a Scotland it claims is tolerant, diverse, inclusive and progressive. Meanwhile, in that same supposedly tolerant, diverse, inclusive and progressive Scotland, Orange parades continue to march through the streets bringing with them the kind of trouble witnessed by Canon Tom White and his congregation on Saturday evening.
Nobody really knows if the person who attacked Canon White by spitting on him and lunging at him with a metal pole was someone participating in the Orange walk itself or just one of the many people who follow it. Either way, it is not the sort of behaviour a priest should face as he welcomes his parishioners to the Saturday Vigil in the parish of St Alphonsus in Glasgow’s east end. The matter is now with the police and one would hope the perpetrator will be brought to justice. Yet it is disturbing that orange parades are allowed to walk anywhere near a Catholic Church, knowing full well the sensitivities. It’s interesting to think that whilst Canon Tom White was being assaulted on the doorstep of his parish, the same Glasgow City Council that approved the parade is exploring options around the banning of peaceful, prayerful pro-life vigils. On the one hand the council is tolerant of Orange parades and the disturbance and violence that inevitably follows; yet, on the other, it is intolerant of peaceful vigils.
It is a challenge to know just how to tackle the sort of deeply ingrained bigotry and hatred which leads to this type of behaviour. Millions of pounds have been pumped into numerous initiatives and programmes with the aim of tackling sectarian behaviour, all with varying degrees of success. Initiatives which educate and seek to change the culture from the bottom up undoubtedly have their place. But perhaps more important than any programme is to recognise the behaviour for what it is and not try to wrap it up as something it is not. The kind of behaviour witnessed at St Alphonsus on Saturday night is often labelled ‘sectarian’. But it should be labelled ‘anti-Catholic’. Just in the same way an attack on an Imam should be described as ‘anti-Muslim’ or ‘Islamophobic’, and an attack on a Rabbi described as ‘anti-Semitic’.
Hate crime directed at Catholics or the Catholic faith continues to dominate religiously aggravated offending in Scotland. It is a sad reality of life in our country and, far from being a new problem, it is an age old problem that just won’t go away. In our modern, progressive, tolerant Scotland we have witnessed the desecration of a Catholic Church in Coatbridge, a priest and his congregation attacked as they came out of Mass in Fife, and the words ‘Kill all Catholics’ emblazoned on an iconic Glasgow bridge. These, and the attack on Canon White, are all examples of contemporary Scotland. They are not a throwback to the seventies or eighties. It is Scotland, here and now.
The Scottish Government needs to take the lead on this issue and it must not be afraid of confronting the truth. It must openly acknowledge the reality of the anti-Catholic problem in Scotland. Of course, not everyone is guilty of the type of hate directed toward Canon White, but there are too many incidents for it to be swept under the carpet and simply labelled as ‘sectarian’.
It is heartening to see the First Minister condemn the incident. Richard Leonard, Monica Lennon, Annie Wells and Mike Russell have also added their voice to the condemnation, as has the new Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf. This is a positive start but more must be done.
We have reached a critical point for the Catholic community in Scotland. We now need leadership and that leadership should come from government in the form of a strong message that anti-Catholic behaviour will no longer be tolerated and that government will do everything in its power to stop it.
In the meantime let us pray for Canon Tom White and his congregation that they will remain faithful and strong in the face of hate.
Director, Catholic Parliamentary Office