Last year's Scottish Charity Awards Charity Champion tells how being recognised for his campaigning has spurred him onto greater things
Matthew McVarish doesn’t particularly enjoy walking. Yet last year he completed a gruelling 10,000 miles on foot, across 32 European countries, all to raise awareness about child sexual abuse.
His Road to Change campaign began in London in May 2013 and finished on home soil in Edinburgh in February last year.
Along the way he met the Pope, spoke to politicians and addressed parliaments - he even adopted a cat. And he did it all while also raising thousands of pounds for the Airdrie-based Moira Anderson Foundation.
However, the icing on the cake was being awarded the 2015 Charity Champion crown at last year’s prestigious Scottish Charity Awards – the highest accolade of its kind in the country.
Now as this year’s awards officially opens for applications, Matthew told TFN the recognition has been life changing and has convinced him his camapign can achieve great things.
“Over the last year, since winning Charity Champion, I’ve taken over 100 flights to countries as far flung as Malaysia and Iceland, spoke to the United Nations and the European Union and got the ears of some of the highest ranking government officials. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” he said.
“I don’t do this for personal recognition but when you do get a pat on the back it makes you realise you’re doing something right.”
Matthew’s determination to tackle the taboo of sexual abuse stems from his own desperate childhood in which he was abused by his uncle, Terry McMonagle, who was eventually jailed for six years in 2010.
The abuse went back as far as he could remember and continued until he was 13. When he was 15, he discovered that his older brother had also been abused by the same uncle. Later, his two other brothers revealed that they too had been victims of the same man.
Matthew went on to establish a successful career in TV and theatre, both as an actor and playwright. He starred in CBeebies hit TV show for kids, Me Too.
However, after reporting his uncle to the police, and deciding to waive his anonymity, he decided that he wanted to do more to raise awareness around child sex abuse and to encourage other victims to report their abusers.
It was until Matthew wrote a play – To Kill A Kelpie – and his brothers read it that they all talked openly together for the first time about what had happened.
The play toured the US and had a brief run on Broadway in New York. “After every single performance we sat with the audience and we did a talk back.
"And after every single performance in every city we had people disclosing histories of abuse. Sometimes for the very first time,” he said.
Encouraged by his growing recognition as a leading campaigner against sexual abuse, not only in Europe but across the world, Matthew believes governments are gradually understanding that child sexual abuse has to come higher up their political agenda.
His hike across Europe pressed for the removal of statutes of limitations so sex crimes dating back decades can be prosecuted.
Eight EU countries have amended their laws since his walk and he has now been invited to speak in India and Thailand.
Matthew, who hails from Westwood in East Kilbride - the same area Sliding Doors actor John Hannah and singer Roddy Frame came from - said: “Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Malta and Romania removed their statute of limitations as a result of my walk.
“But this needs to happen worldwide, which is why I’ll be spreading the message through ongoing work with the United Nations.
“The opportunity to also take the message to Thailand and India is hugely significant.
“I always knew in my heart I’d complete my walk across Europe but I never dreamed it would take me so far.”
Around the world, laws about child sexual abuse vary from country to country, and while it has become easier for victims in some countries to seek legal action against those who victimised them, in others it remains difficult.
“The EU is an economic union. We have policies that benefit everyone in trade, in travel and these things. We should have a humanitarian policy toward child protection harmonised,” Matthew said.
McVarish has unwittingly carved out a niche for himself as an ambassador for survivors of childhood sexual abuse of which there is an estimated 100 million in Europe alone he says.
He believes it’s a duty to speak up for the voiceless – the thousands who are affected and continue to be so by sexual abuse.
“A lot of it is making governments aware of their responsibilities but also how far reaching and how controlling sexual abuse is.
“It’s not so much that governments don’t want to take this seriously; many don’t really know how or have just never prioritised it. So if I’m able to highlight this it will hopefully creep higher up their political agendas.”
Given an opportunity he’ll always highlight the issue of abuse where appropriate to do so and the subject matter continues to permeate much of his writing.
“I get frustrated when I go to the theatre and I see plays that are quite prosaic and don’t have a strong subject matter,” he says. “Knowing how much it costs to stage a play and how hard it is to get backing, I think a lot of writers miss the chance to be more political and get a strong message across.
“I’ll always be political and edgy in my writing. I always want play to be powerful and forceful. I think as a writer you should always strive to be as impactful as possible.”
Though political change is the driving force behind Matthews campaigning, being recognised for his efforts is the icing on the cake.
“In many countries, those who speak out against the sexual abuse of children are ignored but here we celebrate them.
“Winning the Charity champion award makes me proud to be Scottish, as it confirms that we are a nation who are ready to discuss the problem that most don't want to talk about.
“It's why we’re called Scotland the brave.”
The deadline for the Scottish Charity Awards 2016 is 18 March. Enter now.