Bishops and parishioners are at odds with Cardinal Winning, the leader of Scotland's 750,000 Roman Catholics, over his statement that the church should not report alleged paedophile priests to the police. His assertion, which conflicts with tough guidelines on sexual abuse adopted recently by Catholic leaders in England, Wales and Ireland, has been condemned as "misguided and highly damaging".
Earlier this year the Catholic Bishops' Conference south of the border agreed that clergy who suspect that a priest has abused a child should inform the local child-protection agencies and, through them, the police. In Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly has declared that the church will hand over any evidence of abuse to the authorities.
But in a statement published earlier this month, Cardinal Winning insisted that in Scotland the church's role was different. It was up to the victim, not the clergy, to inform the authorities of criminal allegations, he said.
His comments were backed by Fr Tom Connelly, the church's official spokesman in Scotland. He said that even if serious claims of abuse were made it was "not up to the church to phone the police". Bishops should "care for the victim, their family, the community and the perpetrator".
Cardinal Winning's statement has provoked outrage among Catholics north of the border after revelations that the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh failed to inform police of a case of violent sexual abuse at Blairs RC college near Aberdeen in 1990. Last week the church admitted that Archbishop Keith O'Brien arranged for the 14-year-old victim to be paid £42,000 compensation but did not report his abuser, Fr Desmond Lynagh, to the authorities.
Instead, Archbishop O'Brien removed Fr Lynagh from his pastoral duties and ordered him to seek treatment. Grampian police are now investigating allegations of abuse at Blairs college.
Child-welfare groups and lay catholics have expressed "deep shock" at news of the cover-up. They have called on Cardinal Winning to retract his statement, which they describe as outdated and dangerous.
Douglas Turner, a spokesman for the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: " The church's prime moral responsibilty is towards the protection of children. If allegations of abuse are made against a priest, the church should bring them to the attention of the police immediately, so that no other children are put at risk. The church in Scotland has dealt with this issue in a shabby, damaging and incompetent way."
Last week, Cardinal Winning refused to revise his policy statement. Instead, he chaired a private meeting of the Scottish Bishops' Conference which agreed to set up a working group to examine the issues raised by the cases of Fr Lynagh and another priest, Fr John Archibald, who was removed from a parish near Glasgow two years ago after claims that he had abused young boys. Church officials did not inform Strathclyde Police.
Catholics have welcomed the new working group, but many, including several bishops, say that Cardinal Winning's refusal to revise his statement is damaging the reputation of the church. Critics accuse him of hiding behind the church's traditional, secretive practices in a misguided attempt to minimise the damage caused by the recent revelations.
One senior bishop, who asked not to be named, said: "In the past, embarrassing problems were hushed up. The church moved 'problem priests' around from parish to parish. It was internal way of dealing with what appeared at the time to be an internal problem. But now that society has come to realise the sad extent of abuse, it is vital that we are as open as possible and are seen to be open.
"The working group is a good thing but it has come too late. Serious damage has already been done to our reputation. If we continue to give the impression that we are less than 100 per cent open and beyond reproach on this issue, more damage will be done. Clergy, including Cardinal Winning, should make it clear very quickly that we support the position adopted in other parts of Britain and that we will cooperate with the police."
Another bishop said: "The leadership of the church should now make it crystal clear what direction we are going in, before there is any more criticism. We need strong guidance on what is a very difficult and complex problem."
Church leaders insist that the decision to convene the working party shows they are treating the issue of abuse "with the utmost seriousness" but it is "too early" to draw up new policies. Fr Noel Barry, Cardinal Winning's press secretary, said: "This issuch a new area. What we are having to deal with at the moment are essentially stale cases. But the group will be high-powered and will make recommendations."