WILLIE Rennie has praised David Steel and even claimed that the disgraced LibDem peer didn't know that Cyril Smith had molested children – despite Steel's own admission that he knew Cyril Smith had molested children.

The MSP also refused to apologise for his own party’s whitewash of an investigation into Steel that found there were “no grounds for action”.

Today The National revealed the lawyer for Smith’s victims had accused the Scottish LibDems of putting their “own party interest” above the welfare of children abused by Smith.

Steel quit the party on Tuesday following the publication of the damning report into allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster. It claimed there was a culture of “failing to recognise abuse, turning a blind eye to it, covering up allegations and actively protecting high-profile offenders including politicians”

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) report was particularly scathing on Steel’s inaction over Smith.

The MP for Rochdale had effectively confessed to Steel that he had stripped, spanked and fondled boys in a local children's home.

And yet, Steel, who led the party between 1976 and 1988, did nothing.

READ MORE: Scottish LibDems' whitewashing of the David Steel investigation

The report suggested that the Liberals, still reeling from the scandal over Jeremy Thorpe, were keen to avoid another embarrassment.

It said Steel “should have provided leadership,” but instead, “he abdicated his responsibility. He looked at Cyril Smith not through the lens of child protection but through the lens of political expediency”.

Today, Rennie praised Steel: “David has a very long career in politics, where’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“Of course he’s resigned from the party and withdrawn from public life because of the inquiry’s conclusion and I think that was the right decision.”

He denied the Scottish party’s investigation of Steel’s conduct was a "whitewash".

The National: David Steel, left, admitted to having been aware of allegations against Cyril SmithDavid Steel, left, admitted to having been aware of allegations against Cyril Smith

He 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.”

Asked what signal that decision sent to victims of predators like Smith, 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.”

Asked about lawyers for the victims of Smith saying the LibDems had put the party before victims, he said: “That’s not true.”

READ MORE: Scottish LibDems 'chose party interests' over Cyril Smith's victims

Rennie denied the Scottish LibDems had protected Steel last year, commenting: “No, we took the decision last year that there was no further grounds for action at that time.”

Asked if he could see why victims would feel let down by the Scottish LibDems, he replied: “I think victims for a long time have felt let down. They’ve not been heard. This report has given them that voice.”

Asked if he condemned Steel, he 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.”

Pressed on whether Steel had mishandled the Smith case, Rennie stated: “I think David has reflected, he’s admitted himself about the issues and the decisions he took.”

Probed again on whether Steel made an error over Smith, the Scottish LibDem chief 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.”

Reminded Lord Steel had nominated Smith for the knighthood – which he received in 1988 a decade after the initial Private Eye story – Rennie commented: “The Liberal Democrats did not know. David did not know at that time when those decisions were made. All of that became public later.”

Though that is disputed by IICSA who in their report Steel himself who told the inquiry “that he had ‘assumed’ from what he was told – that is, he accepted as true – that Cyril Smith had committed the offences”.