Altar boy sues Catholic Church over allegations of rape by a priest

Clockwise: Father John Gowans, of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton; Jim Lawn, who was an altar boy; St Patrick Church and presbytery, and Wee St Pat’s school in McLean Place, Dumbarton.

By Bill Heaney

A former altar boy at St Patrick’s, Dumbarton, who claims he was raped dozens of times by a priest is suing the Catholic Church.

Jim Lawn told BBC Scotland he was repeatedly raped and beaten over a two-year period in the 1970s by Father John Gowans at St Patrick’s RC Church in Dumbarton.

There has been speculation in the community for many years about how many more children may have been sexually abused by the predator priest who was obsessed by football.

It appears however that Gowans may have been more interested in abusing the boys who played in the “Wee St Pat’s” schools teams during the years he was chaplain there.

There has been speculation too on social media that Gowans also targeted young girls and one wrote that she had been warned by her friends not to speak with him and to avoid ever taking a lift in his car.

Another attractive young woman said he had followed her in the street and then gone to her home and told her parents she was “an occasion of sin”.

Gowans was also said to have “given the slipper” to boys he considered to have misbehaved and to have gone to the houses of pupils at the school offering to administer this type of corporal punishment to them.

Gowans also led annual Boys’ Guild “camps” to Aberdeen and to the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France.

Lawn Jim

Jim Lawn is suing the Catholic Church over allegations of rape and abuse by a priest

Mr Lawn, 54, said that when he initially approached the Church about the abuse almost a decade ago he was ignored.

Other men have similar stories about being “left in Limbo” by senior Churchmen to whom they told their stories and the stories of others.

The Catholic Church said its response to Jim Lawn had been “simply unacceptable”.

The Church said it was sorry for abuse that had happened and now had better safeguarding procedures in place.

Mr Lawn said he was eight years old when the abuse began.

He attended Mass as an altar boy – once on a Sunday and again midweek.

Mr Lawn said that on weekday mornings he was the only boy around and after the service Gowans, who died in 1999, would lead him to the sacristy – a private room for dressing and preparing for Mass.

He would then be abused and beaten – before having to walk to his nearby primary school, just over the wall in Strathleven Place.

Mr Lawn said: “He [Gowans] took me into a toilet just off the corridor leading om the sacristy to the Church.

“In a very short space of time it went from initial touching to a full attack. I was terrified and completely powerless to stop any of it.

“They nearly all happened like this and it happened nearly every week for two or three years.”

Gowans, believed to be in his 40s at the time of the abuse, is said to have taken steps to cover his tracks, such as locking doors.

Jim Lawn added: “He was very cold and organised about what he did. I knew what he was doing was wrong, but I was simply too scared to tell anyone.”

Gowans - Church of St Patrick

St Patrick’s Church and presbytery in Strathleven Place, Dumbarton.

When Mr Lawn was just ten years old, his father’s work took him to Saudi Arabia for one year which brought an element of peace for him.

But he suffered panic attacks, sleepless nights and the fear of noises or being left alone.

The family returned to Dumbarton just before he started at St Aloysius College, a public school in Glasgow.

Shortly after arriving home the family learned that Gowans was moved to a diocese in Aberdeen.

Gowans, who often made disparaging remarks about women in general, was one of the priests at St Patrick’s Church in Dumbarton when Canon Hugh Bogan was the parish priest.

St Patrick’s was then one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese of Glasgow and for 50 years was ruled with an iron rod by Monsignor Hugh Canon Kelly, who was known as the Pope of the Clyde.

Gowans - Mgr Hugh Canon KellyIt had a proud tradition of sending a large number of its young parishioners to become priests and nuns, and Monsignor Kelly, pictured left, is said to have been the person mainly responsible for campaigning for the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918, which gave Catholics their own schools.

Mr Lawn said that Gowans told him he would “burn in hell” and that his relatives would die if he spoke of what was happening.

He told Lucy Adams of BBC Scotland: “That was almost the worst thing because the shock of what was happening was one thing – the physical and mental shock of the assault – but the thought that people were going to die, that I would be responsible for that by telling anyone, was horrific.”

Mr Lawn said: “The hell thing, the burning thing, the imagery of that is still something that lives very strongly around in my head 45 years later.”

He said he wanted to speak out to give others the confidence to do so, and because he wanted some sense of justice for himself and the child he was then.

It is remarkable that Church insiders appeared to know nothing of Gowans’ predilection for paedophilia.

When he died in 1999, he received a fulsome obituary in the (Glasgow) Herald compiled with information from the Church.

It revealed that he was promoted to Canon during a secondment period in Aberdeen – “Canon John Gowans worked as a priest in Glasgow for most of his life before moving to Aberdeen in the late seventies. Born in Dennistoun, he was educated at St Mungo’s Academy and at the Royal Technical College, and he became a chemist at the city’s gas works. During the war he served with the RAF and was stationed in India.

“On demob he returned to his old job, but like so many he felt unsettled and decided to pursue his vocation to the priesthood at St Peter’s College at Cardross. This former regional seminary of the Archdiocese of Glasgow saw a post-war influx of men from the conflict who felt their experiences led them to seek a deeper meaning in life.

“After six years there he was ordained a priest by Archbishop Campbell of Glasgow in St Andrew’s Cathedral on June 29, 1953. His first appointment took him to St John’s in Portugal Street in the Gorbals where he served until he was moved to St Patrick’s in Dumbarton. While in Dumbarton he served on the area education sub-committee.

“In 1974, Canon Gowans was sent to St Brendan’s in Yoker which was to be the last Glasgow parish he served in. Two years later he took a temporary appointment in Aberdeen working in two different parishes, in Torry and Kincorth.

“The diocese of Aberdeen was without a bishop at this time and when Mario Conti became Bishop in 1977 he appointed Canon Gowans as parish priest of Holy Family in Mastrick. He decided to stay in Aberdeen diocese and became involved in the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

“Anyone who knew Canon Gowans was aware of his great interest in young people and their welfare. He was a frequent visitor to schools and helped organise youth pilgrimages to Lourdes, which played a major part in his devotions.

“For 38 years he went on pilgrimage to the famous French shrine and he was a former honorary chaplain here. In 1997 he retired and went to live in Troon. Ironically, Canon Gowans died on the train from Paris to London on his return from Lourdes.

In 2009, Mr Lawn decided to report his complaints to the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service. He also emailed the Bishops Conference. However, his initial inquiries received no response.

In 2011, he eventually secured a meeting by phoning the Archdiocesan offices in Clyde Street, Glasgow, but claims the safeguarding service was more interested in who he had told than how he was coping.

Another man who said that he too had been abused by Gowans while he was an altar boy at St Patrick’s told me that although he and another person had received an interview at the highest level, there was no satisfactory outcome.

Mr Lawn has now decided to take matters further by suing the Church.

For many victims it can take decades or even longer to speak up about what has happened to them.

One priest convicted of clerical abuse had his sentence reduced by a year just last week in the High Court when he appealed.

In the past, there was a strict three-year time limit on taking civil cases, but last year the Scottish government removed that barrier for the victims of childhood abuse.

Gowans - Kim Leslie of Digby BrownKim Leslie, of Glasgow-based law firm Digby Brown, said people felt they weren’t going to be believed or that they just could not speak out.

“It was the silencing effect. In recognition of this the Scottish government has made this change in the law and so this is the time for people to come forward to seek help if they are ready.”

The Catholic Church told the BBC the crimes described in the allegations were “appalling”.

A statement said it was “truly sorry” for what had happened to those who had suffered abuse.

It said the “lack of response” given to Mr Lawn by the Church when he raised his concerns nine years ago and again seven years ago was “simply unacceptable”.

The Church said in recent years it had invested in safeguarding, and today, anyone reporting abuse would be assisted to inform the police and would be offered independent counselling.

Dame Helen heads up newly-launched abuse investigation

Liddell Helen

Baroness Helen Liddell who will head up the new inquiry on behalf of the Church.

McLellan 3A detailed investigation into historic child abuse in establishments connected with the Catholic Church in Scotland – and with the clergy and religious who were appointed to run them – was launched at the beginning of this month, writes Bill Heaney.

The announcement from the Scottish bishops followed a meeting of the Independent Review Group established by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.

An official statement from the Church said that “stakeholders” from throughout the Catholic Church were involved.

They agreed to announce and prepare for a professional audit of safeguarding in two Catholic dioceses in Scotland to be conducted by Social Care Institute for Excellence and Children in Scotland.

The dioceses “randomly chosen” from the eight in Scotland are the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, and the Diocese of Galloway.

An official statement said: “The outcome of this detailed work is intended to ensure full implementation of the McLellan Commission’s recommendations and put in place a robust system of safeguarding for children and vulnerable adults that can be measured against the best international standards.”

The McLellan Commission was headed by the Very Rev Andrew McLellan, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Its report was described as “a whitewash” in sections of the Scottish media.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry presided over by High Court Judge Lady Smith recently heard stories of children in care being sexually abused. It is still ongoing and will continue for an indefinite period.

The new Independent Review Group chair is Helen Liddell, a former Labour MP, BBC TV reporter, MP and trade union official, who was an adviser to the late Robert Maxwell when he bought the Daily Record.  Dame Helen is now a member of the House of Lords at Westminster.

She said: “We cannot eliminate the pain of those who experienced abuse in the past, but we can put in place not just procedures but a culture that both supports them and protects all those who most need our care and compassion in future.”

Bishops of Scotland

Scotland’s bishops whose track record in handling clerical abuse has been disappointing to say the least.

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