Willie Rennie repeatedly declined to condemn former Lib Dem peer Lord Steel for failing to act when confronted by claims that Cyril Smith was a child abuser.
The Scottish Lib Dem leader also declined to apologise for a report by his party which last year found there were no grounds for action against Lord Steel.
When challenged by journalists at Holyrood, Mr Rennie praised Lord Steel whose career ended this week after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) condemned him for failing to alert the authorities about the late Rochdale MP.
Lord Steel announced his resignation from the Lib Dems and withdrew from public life in the House of Lords following the publication of the ICSA report.
Mr Rennie resisted criticising Lord Steel despite being given several opportunities to do so, confining himself to saying that peer’s decision to stand down was the “right” one.
The findings of the ICSA report contrasted with an internal Lib Dem investigation which said there were “no grounds for action” against Lord Steel.
Steel quitting the party was the ‘right’ decision, says Rennie
When asked about his handling of the Lord Steel controversy, Mr Rennie said: “David has a very long career in politics where he’s contributed in terms of anti-apartheid, in terms of women’s rights and abortion, and that needs to be reflected.
“Of course he’s resigned from the party and withdrawn from public life because of the inquiry’s conclusion and I think that was the right decision.”
Mr Rennie disputed suggestions that the Scottish party’s investigation of Lord Steel’s conduct was a whitewash.
The Scottish Lib Dem leader said: “We took the decision that there was no action to be taken at that time, we knew there was a further inquiry to come that was going to look into these issues in a wider remit and with more depth, and we knew they would come to a conclusion this year.”
Asked if the party had made a mistake, he said: “I think what we did is we took the evidence at the time and we drew the conclusion there was no further action to be taken at that time.”
When challenged on what message his party’s handling of the controversy sent to victims of abusers like Smith, Mr Rennie said: “I think what signal it sends to victims is we’ve got a public inquiry that listens to them, that understands the pain they’ve gone through, and they’ve drawn conclusions.
“I think that’s good for public life because it’s making sure that victims will be heard when they haven’t been heard in the past.”
“That’s not true,” replied Mr Rennie, who also denied that the Lib Dems had protected Lord Steel.
When asked if he condemned Lord Steel, the Lib Dem leader said: “I think David has made the right decision to withdraw from public life, to resign from the Liberal Democrats. He’s reflected on all of that and I think that’s the right thing to do.”
On whether Lord Steel had mishandled the Smith case, Mr Rennie said: “I think David has reflected, he’s admitted himself about the issues and the decisions he took.”
Pressed further on whether Lord Steel made an mistake when it came to Smith’s abuse of children, Mr Rennie said: “David has reflected on the report. By the fact he has resigned he has accepted that mistakes have been made in the past, and he’s withdrawn from public life.
“David has recognised this very powerful report. He’s understood that victims have felt let down. He’s understood the turmoil it has caused and therefore he’s withdrawn from public life.”
When reminded Lord Steel had nominated Smith for the late MP’s knighthood, Mr Rennie added: “The Liberal Democrats did not know. David did not know at that time when those decisions were made. All of that became public later.”