Child sex abuse campaigner to get hero’s welcome

A SCOTTISH survivor of child sex abuse who is due to finish his 10,000-mile “Road to Change” walk across Europe highlighting the issue will receive a hero’s welcome as he completes his final mile from Edinburgh Castle down the Royal Mile to Holyrood today.
McVarish wore his kilt on the walk, which prompted people to sing Proclaimers songs as he passed them. Picture: Daily RecordMcVarish wore his kilt on the walk, which prompted people to sing Proclaimers songs as he passed them. Picture: Daily Record
McVarish wore his kilt on the walk, which prompted people to sing Proclaimers songs as he passed them. Picture: Daily Record

Matthew McVarish, 31, former star of River City and CBeebies television show Me Too! – who waived anonymity to reveal that he was abused as a child by his uncle – has campaigned along the route to abolish the statute of limitations (legal time limit) on reporting such crimes, which hinders prosecution in many countries.

Since Mr McVarish began his walk in May 2013, Hungary has abolished their statute of limitations, Slovakia has a motion to abolish going to parliament and five other countries – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Malta and Portugal – are discussing abolition.

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Mr McVarish, whose uncle was sentenced to six years in prison in 2010, has walked to 32 European capital cities. He was joined on part of the route by Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, and was blessed by Pope Francis in a private audience.

In every capital city he has held meetings with government ministers, child protection organisations, politicians and the media. He has also spoken at the United Nations.

Describing the reaction he encountered along the route – which he walked in his kilt – Mr McVarish said he received a warm welcome from the public, with people shouting “Freedom” and singing The Proclaimers’ hit 5,000 Miles to him and inviting him into homes and pubs. But he said he also hit a “raw nerve” by riling police authorities in Balkan countries.

“The further away I got from home, the prouder I got to be Scottish. We still have a lot of work to do but at home survivors are not looked at with fear and suspicion.

“My aim was to encourage child sex abuse victims to come forward and report the crimes. The reaction was largely positive and I was told by people in countries like Estonia that I was the first man they had met who had talked openly about having been sexually abused.

“Individuals started coming forward through e-mails, including some parents, and were passed on to criminal investigations.

“But there were times, especially in some Eastern European countries, where I realised how difficult it was going to be.

“I was sitting with senior police officers in one Balkan country and they said ‘not in our country’ and would not acknowledge it was happening there.”

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Mr McVarish, who grew up in East Kilbride, also spoke of sometimes encountering homophobic attitudes, with male victims of abuse often being perceived as gay.

“In Poland, which is a very religious Catholic country, I gave an interview to a newspaper which got a massive homophobic response. It talked about me having sexual contact with a man which was interpreted as me being gay.”

Mr McVarish, winner of the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Top Scot 2014 award, walked an average of 30 miles a day and slept in a camper van. The walk has been funded by public donation and organised by Mr McVarish’s organisation the Raphael International Foundation, with assistance from The Moira Anderson Foundation and Ariel Foundation International.

Linda Fabiani, SNP MSP for East Kilbride who raised a motion in the Scottish Parliament congratulating Mr McVarish for his achievements, said: “Matthew and the team have done so much to help raise awareness of people affected by child sexual abuse. The Road to Change team are an absolute inspiration and I wish them every success.”