The state stole my religion

At the age of 11, Kenny Murray was taken away from his family and placed in care. It was a difficult childhood. He explains that it was made more so because he was removed from the parish that had supported him.

One of my fondest memories of my childhood is sitting in a postal boat, red life-jacket on and a fresh breeze on my face as I bounced along the waves towards Inchcailloch, an island in Loch Lomond.

I wasn’t alone, I was surrounded by a large group of other 10-year-old boys, but the serenity I felt at that moment is hard to live up to. Even to this day.

My tour guide was Fr Peter McBride, a priest from my local church, St Thomas in Riddrie. When I was an altar boy, Fr McBride had got to know me and as many parish priests do, became a supportive figure in my life.

This support extended towards my family, helping in times of crisis. Providing support both financial and spiritual. An example of this being our Christmas dinner one year gifted by Fr McBride and a Saint Vincent de Paul delivery late on Christmas Eve. He was a big part of our life and religion was a big part of mine.

I used to regularly go to Mass, sometimes managing two or three in a week. As a child living through tough times, religion was a source of hope and solace. The hymns I sang as I walked down Cumbernauld Road to my home in Haghill are some of the first songs I ever learned, many of them still come to me in times of strife.

However, a short while on from this joyful moment I was taken into care. The crisis in my life and family circumstances meant that I was judged to be better looked after by the state. In reality, this crisis was poverty manifesting as something other than a middle-class lifestyle.

I was to be separated from Fr McBride, my Church and the community to which I belonged.

State care and religion is a complicated matter and that’s putting it lightly. Over decades organised religious institutions oversaw the abuse and at times, deaths of children and young people taken into the care of the state.

People are still living with the impact of their treatment at the hand of those acting as supposed charitable servants.

In my case, however, religion was a fundamental part of my identity and my relationship with my local church and priest, one of love.

This wasn’t ever considered as far as I know, in the formal proceedings that oversaw how I was to be cared for.

Throughout my time in care, I was lucky to stay at the same Catholic secondary school — although records make clear that this was entirely about ticking a box for a stable education.

I’ve searched my care records high and low for discussions about my religion and my identity and the only thing I can find is a reference from before I entered formal care, in a social work assessment which reads, ‘enjoys alter boy practice’.

This misspelled acknowledgment is not much but it’s the closest to any recognition that I had a religious identity in pages upon pages of detail about my life.

As an adult, I’ve come to refiect on my experience of care quite often, but I’ve never spoken about the cost to my identity and religious beliefs publicly before.

Part of that is very closely linked to the knowledge that so many of my peers experienced abuse and life-changing negative experiences at the hands of religious care workers.

Yet, I feel angry about the decisions made by others that stripped me of something so important to who I was.

The political activist in me can’t help but think that perhaps the institutional bias against Catholics in Scotland played a part in these decisions.

Did the state in deciding to take over parenting me make the decision that stripping me of my religion was a positive choice? Did they not think about it at all? Which is worse? I don’t have the answers.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry considers such removals of people from their religious and cultural heritage to be abuse.

Yet, I still hear today from care experienced people about being placed with families outwith their cultural and religious background with no support given to help maintain that sense of identity.

I’m no longer a practising Catholic and I struggle with religion, and I’ve only recently refiected on why.

After I had been taken into care, I was placed with a ‘non-denominational’ family, in the Scottish sense, who looked after many different foster children and their own. It was a bit of a factory, and it was easy to get lost.

In reading my care records, it’s clear that they didn’t like me and in fact, found very creative ways to say this. While I was in their care, I found out my Granda had died.

I remember running to my room, crying my heart out and praying to God for help and guidance. Nobody came to comfort me. Not God, not my foster carers and not my family whom the state had removed from my life.

For me, that moment was the day my religion gave in to the organised attempt the state had made to remove my identity.

With the thanks of Ian Dunn, the editor of The Scottish Catholic, I was re-united with Fr McBride a few weeks ago. More than 20 twenty years had passed since the state removed him from my life but as I sat down over a piece of madeira cake and a cup of tea, I felt comfort.

Now a canon, he recalled with remarkable clarity the names of my siblings, spoke about their hopes and desires for what they wanted to be when they were older and discussed joyful memories of visiting Inchcailloch and his sister’s home with my brothers, sisters and fellow altar servers.

I’m not sure where I sit today with religion but I know that when we’re speaking about lifelong loving relationships that my life would have had one more of those if the state had just respected my family’s relationship with our parish priest.

I think that as long as the state removes children from their families, they need to respect their cultural and religious identities, regardless of what they think of it or whichever unconscious bias they’re harbouring.

Kenny Murray is a writer and campaigner.

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