Derry Diocesan Issues 2005-2006

To begin with we were numerically strongest in Derry diocese, whose bishop, Dr Seamus Hegarty, became the focus of a BBC Spotlight investigative programme in early 2005. The programme focused first on his handling of allegations of sexual abuse against a priest, Andrew McCloskey, who had inexplicably been appointed to a church-sponsored role in counselling victims of abuse.  The allegations against McCloskey were unknown to those he was counselling although they were known to Dr Hegarty.

Having failed to explain this, Bishop Hegarty was then confronted with the fact that he had imposed an additional 3% levy on parish collections in the diocese without consulting or informing parishioners – as he had promised his priests he would do in November 2004. This was to allow the diocese to make a contribution to the Bishops’ ‘Stewardship Trust’ – an all-island fund they had set up in 1996 to compensate victims of clerical sex abuse.

This revelation caused a storm in the diocese, leading to a meeting of priests that voted to return the money. Bishop Hegarty apologised, assuring his people that they had a right to know where their money went. (Nevertheless, he was later to re-impose the 3% levy in 2009, again without explanation or forewarning.)

Continuing media curiosity about the Stewardship Trust led in May 2005 to a query to VOTFI about our position on continuing lack of information on contributions to the Stewardship Trust from the Derry diocese. As a consequence we issued our first statement to the media in May 2005.

VOTFI statement to the Derry Media on the Stewardship Trust Fund and the Derry Diocesan Office 17-05-05

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Stewardship Trust

We followed this by taking an all-Ireland position on contributions to the Stewardship Trust, saying it was compromised by lack of transparency – and that lay people should reflect on this before contributing.

Statement to the Irish Media on the Stewardship Trust Fund 06-06-05

Subsequently the Stewardship Trust disappeared from the audible agenda of Irish bishops. Had it acquired too high a profile? We understand that about this time a decision was taken by Irish bishops that the question of compensation for clerical child abuse would be dealt with by dioceses individually. How they do so remains obscure. The right of Catholics to know how their money is spent is not generally observed by Irish bishops.

See also ‘A short History of the Stewardship Trust Fund’.

The Ferns Report 26th October 2005

In 2002 the Irish government had set up an inquiry into the handling of clerical child sex abuse in the diocese of Ferns, Wexford. This decision had followed a sensational BBC TV documentary, Suing the Pope, in which Colm O’Gorman had related his experiences of abuse by Sean Fortune, a priest of the diocese. Facing prosecution, Fortune had committed suicide in 2000. In the media furore that followed ‘Suing the Pope‘ the bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, had resigned.

The Ferns Report was the first Irish state report on child sexual abuse in any Irish diocese. It found that successive bishops of Ferns had ‘placed the interest of the church ahead of children’. We responded by calling for changes to an obviously defective and dangerous church system.

VOTFI Statement to the Irish Media on the Ferns Report 29-10-05

Tom Doyle in Dublin and Derry Nov 2005

Tom Doyle is a Dominican priest who has taken a strong line against the mishandling of clerical child sex abuse by bishops since he first encountered this close up in 1984 in Louisiana, USA. He subsequently helped edit a thorough report on the possible consequences of the problem for the church. It warned that unless dealt with correctly, this abuse could be devastating in both spiritual and financial terms. He was correct on both counts – but his persistence met denial among US bishops and led to the loss of his career in the church’s diplomatic service. He then became a chaplain to US forces, but lost that career in 2002 when he spoke out in the furore that followed the revelations of the cover up of abuse by Bernard Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston.

Very supportive of VOTF in the US, he agreed to speak to VOTF members in Dublin and Derry in November 2005. He brought a refreshing honesty and courage that continues to inspire us, and he remains in close touch with all that goes on here. If anyone wonders what we mean when we speak of ‘priests of integrity’, just Google ‘Tom Doyle’.

VOTF in Derry reports Bishop Seamus Hegarty to Rome, October 2006

Baffled by continuing failures of leadership in Derry diocese, VOTF members there learned in 2006 that in October of that year there was to be an Ad Limina meeting of all Irish bishops with Pope Benedict XVI.  Feeling strongly that their misgivings needed to be communicated to the leadership of the church they prepared a comprehensive report on a series of broken promises by the bishop.  Also, unaccountably, he had failed to respond to the personal letters of some young Catholics in Derry who had written asking for his support for their evangelical Search mission.  Most seriously he had failed to explain the matters revealed by the BBC Spotlight programme of 2005.  Click this link for the full report.

We also issued this brief statement to the media.

To the Irish Media on the VOTF (Ulster) Report to Rome on Derry diocese, Oct 2006

We also held an open meeting in Derry to explain why we had taken this action.  This unprecedented occasion was a stormy one, but events since then have fully vindicated this action, and the factual veracity of the report has never been challenged.  The fact that it was never acknowledged by the Vatican Congregation for Bishops (to which it had been sent) revealed clearly to all of us that the governmental problems of the church did not stop in Derry.  We were learning the lesson that all Irish Catholics have now learnt – that the injunction in Psalm 146 “Put not your trust in princes” applies even to princes at the centre of the Church.  (After all, one of these in 2006 was Bernard Cardinal Law, the discredited former archbishop of Boston, who was then a member of the same Vatican Congregation for Bishops!)

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