Speaking after his October 6 meeting with First Minister Alex Salmond of Scotland, Catholic Bishop Philip Tartaglia of Paisley said, “I am grateful to the First Minister, for the opportunity to have raised these matters with him in a personal way. I share the concerns of the Scottish Government that sectarianism should be eradicated from Scottish society. Fears that the wide remit of the ‘Offensive Behaviour Bill’ might impinge on the freedom to hold and express otherwise inoffensive views appear to have been recognised and are being addressed.”
Bishop Tartaglia added, “I particularly welcome the First minister’s commitment to track and analyse sectarian crime on an on-going basis using all data relating to Section 74 of the Criminal Justice Scotland Act 2003. Clearly, we cannot tackle a problem without first measuring it.”
Bishop Tartaglia concluded, “Our discussions also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate the Catholic Bishops’ publicly stated commitment to “strenuously oppose” any moves towards ‘same sex marriage’. This matter remains unresolved for the moment since the consultation is on-going. I thank the First minister for his assurance that the Government has not reached a final decision on this issue.” The bishop’s statement followed an October 6 meeting with First Minister Salmond concerning legislation now being considered in Scotland’s parliament that seeks to abolish sectarian threats and violence.
Both Bishop Tartaglia, and Cardinal Keith Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, president of the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, have expressed continued “grave concern” that Catholics are subjected to bigotry in the overwhelmingly Protestant country. In a report compiled in 2007, for instance, the government noted that in the 18 months studied, “in fact five times more likely to be victims of a religiously aggravated crime” than Protestants.
The 2007 study of anti-bigotry laws, which showed that 532 cases of reported religiously aggravated offenses between January 2004 and June 2005, dispelled the belief that sectarianism is a "west of Scotland problem" that is associated with soccer. The number of cases of bigotry reported by police has tripled since the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, which created the offense of religious aggravation, came into force. The report revealed that acts of religious hatred are being reported in almost every part of the country, with only 33 percent of cases related to soccer events and 12 percent to marches and parades. As well, less than half – 45 percent – involved alcohol consumption.
Incidents of both Protestant bigotry and atheist or anti-religious intolerance peaked during last year’s visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland and England. Soccer matches are the frequent venue of sectarian and bigoted displays. Scotland’s Rangers soccer team, for instance, has an overwhelming Protestant fan base, while the Celtic Football Club has a largely Catholic identity. Much of the bigotry in Scotland is directed at persons of Irish ancestry, thus overlapping with traditional anti-Catholicism.
Following the October 6 meeting of Bishop Tartaglia and First Minister Salmond, the leader of Scotland vowed to strengthen freedom of speech rights in the proposed legislation and release data on sectarian incidents. Bishop Tartaglia had previously branded the government bill a "distraction." The Scottish government's Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill is in its final stages of parliamentary approval even while opposition parties have refused to support it.
The bill seeks to restrict abusive behavior, whether fans are watching matches in a stadium or offsite, by bringing in new jail terms of up to five years. However, confusion now reigns as to what is a sectarian offence. First Minister Salmond said a clause guaranteeing freedom of speech would be inserted into the legislation, while details of past sectarian-related incidents would be published. He said this would continue on an on-going basis.
Anti-Catholic hostility is "deep, wide and vicious" in Scotland, according to Peter Kearney of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, who was responding in November 2010 to revelations that the director of the Scottish Football Association referees had forwarded offensive emails about the Pope's visit to Scotland. SFA referees chief Hugh Dallas resigned his post following the revelations. Kearney warned, “Let no-one be in any doubt, with this shameful episode, Catholics in Scotland have drawn a line in the sand," adding “The bigotry, the bile, the sectarian undercurrents and innuendos must end. Such hateful attitudes have had their day. They poison the well of community life. They must be excised and cast out once and for all.” The "tasteless" emails, said Kearney, were just “the tip of a disturbing iceberg of anti-Catholicism in Scottish society.”
Touching on a subject that has piqued the ire of British leftists and secularists, Bishop Tartaglia also noted in a letter to First Minister Salmond the Church’s continued opposition to re-defining marriage as to include same-sex unions. The bishop wrote that the Church was "dismayed" over the government's consultations on same-sex marriage and warned of a "serious chill" in church relations with Scottish National Party ministers. Noting that the issue remains unresolved, Bishop Tartaglia added, "Our discussions also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate the Catholic Bishops' publicly stated commitment to strenuously oppose any moves towards same sex marriage."