VOTFI Report to Rome on Derry Diocese, October 2006

This report was sent by Ulster members of VOTFI to the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, prior to the ‘Ad Limina’ visit of all Irish Catholic bishops to Rome, 16th-30th October 2006.

The report was signed by: Danny Duddy, Johnny McCallion, Connolly McLaughlin, Martin McLaughlin, Jean Mullan, Sean O’Conaill, Johnny White, Bernadette Wyer.


VOTFI Report on the Catholic Diocese of Derry

‘Voice of the Faithful’ is an organisation of lay Catholics originating in the USA in the aftermath of the most recent crisis over clerical child sex abuse in Boston in 2002. Aiming to ‘keep the faith and change the church’ our primary goals are to support victims of abuse, to support priests of integrity (the majority) and to build structures in the church which will allow the fruitful collaboration of priests and people.

The signatories of this report are all also members of the Catholic diocese of Derry, Ireland.

Respectfully we draw to the attention of the Holy Father and of the Congregation for Bishops the steady decline of this diocese in the period since 1994, and its present most serious condition. We know that many other Irish dioceses have some of the problems outlined below, but it is unlikely that any has all of them to the same degree. They pose a most serious challenge to all Catholics in the diocese – a challenge we need to meet together, in prayer, as a community of faith.

Falling Mass attendances and an apparent abandonment of interest in sacramental practice by many young people are part of an Ireland-wide pattern. So are the ageing and numeric decline of our clergy as vocations to the ordained priesthood fall also. So is the demoralising impact of a series of clerical child sex abuse scandals, which have raised still-unanswered questions about the ineffectiveness of church leadership to safeguard Catholic children – especially remembering the Lord’s adjuration to Peter: “Feed my Lambs.”

However, the following matters give us particular cause for concern in this diocese.

Events and Issues of Concern in Derry

1 The ‘Ministry and Change’ Process
2 Clerical Sex Abuse and the ‘Stewardship Trust’
3 Inadequate Provision for Adult Faith Development
4 Bishop Hegarty’s treatment of the Derry ‘Search’ Youth Ministry
5 Bishop Hegarty and ‘Towards Healing’
6 The lack of a diocesan Pastoral Council and Pastoral Plan
7 Contradictory statements made to media



1 The ‘Ministry and Change’ Process

Despite an express undertaking given by him in 2003 Bishop Seamus Hegarty has failed to bring to fruition the diocese’s most important initiative for its revitalisation since his arrival in 1994: the ‘Ministry and Change’ consultation process with laity 1998-2003. His failure to honour his own avowed commitment to move to an implementation phase in this process, made to some of the signatories of this document in 2003, has most seriously challenged our trust in the Episcopal system itself, convincing many once well-disposed lay Catholics that there is no role in their church for them and for their idealism.

To assist understanding of ‘Ministry and Change’ we append a list of the hopes expressed for a revitalisation of the diocese in 1998 by lay people meeting in one of its deaneries (Appendix 1). Similar lists were compiled in the other deaneries of the diocese, and provided the optimistic framework for the ‘Ministry and Change’ process over the next five years. We also attach the report presented to the bishop at the end of the process in 2003 (Appendix 2), a report which he broadly welcomed and promised to bring to an implementation phase. That promise has yet to be honoured.

Perhaps the most successful achievement of the Ministry and Change team during those years was the holding of a one-day diocesan conference on Collaborative Ministry, attended by delegates from all over the diocese. It is to us quite extraordinary and lamentable that, while many of the lay participants expressed the hope that it would be the first of many attempts to forward a fruitful collaboration between priests and people, the bishop would subsequently remark to one of us that this conference would be the last event of its kind in the diocese.

He has been as good as his word: no diocese-wide initiative, designed to bring all of the people of the diocese into fruitful collaboration, has ever been undertaken by him.

Dr Hegarty’s failure to discharge his express undertaking to the Ministry and Change team is especially important in light of the adjuration of his holiness Pope John Paul II to Irish bishops in 1999 to introduce “new structures and programmes that help to build a greater sense of belonging to the ecclesial community”. This is something Bishop Hegarty has signally failed to do in any other way either.

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2 Clerical Sex Abuse and the ‘Stewardship Trust’

Early in 2005 serious disquiet arose in the diocese regarding the participation by a priest of the diocese in a counselling service for victims of sexual abuse, a service listed in the Derry diocesan directory and described as diocesan outreach to victims. On January 23rd 2005, this priest had publicly admitted having made a sexual advance to a young man over a decade earlier. In a BBC television interview on 22nd February 2005 (Appendix 3) Bishop Hegarty admitted that he had known of a second serious allegation against the same priest by 1999, but insisted that he had handled the matter responsibly in allowing this priest to continue in parish ministry and to work as a spiritual director to members of the Catholic youth group ‘Search’.

In the same interview Bishop Hegarty argued that the decision to appoint this priest to a counselling role was a matter for the directors of the counselling service (‘Hope Alive’, now ‘Nest’), in whose judgement he expressed complete confidence. However, these directors have never since publicly explained their decision.

Appendix 3 reveals also that by February 2005 Bishop Hegarty had diverted 3% of parish collections in the financial year 2003-2004 to the support of the Stewardship Trust Fund without informing the people of the diocese, despite a prior undertaking to the priests of the diocese that he would first inform the whole diocese of his intention to do this.

This quite sensational revelation alerted most of the Catholic people of this island for the first time to the existence of this fund. It took very little time to discover that the fund had been created originally in 1996 as a consequence of a failure of insurance cover against liability for damages caused by clerical child sexual abuse in the period up to 1994.

Needless to say, this history of the Stewardship Trust Fund has never been fully disclosed by Bishop Hegarty to the people of Derry. His failure to honour his undertaking to the priests of the diocese to inform the people of his diocese of his intention to divert some of their parish contributions to this fund has therefore also seriously undermined the trust that the office of bishop requires to operate effectively. Our priests subsequently met – without Bishop Hegarty – and decided that the money already sent to the fund should be returned to the parishes.

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3 Inadequate Provision for Adult Faith Development

The failure to invest in adult faith development is another most serious shortfall in the diocese. It is common knowledge that since Bishop Hegarty’s transfer here, very large sums have been invested in what might be called the material infrastructure of the diocese – especially the replacing and refurbishing of clerical residences in parishes.

No open accounts of this financial emphasis have been provided by the diocese – but informal inter-parish communication and simple arithmetic strongly point towards expenditure running into many millions sterling for this purpose.

Yet we also have the situation where the only adult faith development course in the diocese is currently offered to lay people at a cost of £120 per head!

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4 Bishop Hegarty’s treatment of the Derry ‘Search’ Youth Ministry

‘Search’ is a youth version of ‘Cursillo’. The Derry City ‘Search’ ministry began in 1985. Since then approximately 4,000 young people have experienced the ‘Search’ evangelical weekend, and many have maintained membership of the ‘Search’ community for an extended period afterwards.

When ‘Search’ began, the violence of Northern Ireland’s political situation was still a serious threat to young people living in the most deprived areas of the city. Unemployment and the instability of family life left the poorest young people very vulnerable. Derry ‘Search’ undoubtedly saved many young people from lives of crime, addiction, and political violence. Its success was noted by Catholic adults elsewhere in Ireland, and other ‘Search’ communities sprouted from it – e.g. in Dungiven in the Derry diocese, in Letterkenny and Sligo in neighbouring dioceses, and even in Glasgow, Scotland.

At present ‘Search’ in Derry occupies the leisure time of twenty adults. Up to sixty young people meet every Sunday evening for prayer, reflection and training for further evangelical weekends.

In 2004, seeking Bishop Hegarty’s support for a bid for improved premises for ‘Search’ in Derry, fifty young ‘Search’ members wrote to the bishop, explaining what they personally had received from ‘Search’ by way of inspiration, understanding and spiritual growth. A reply was immediately forthcoming from the bishop’s secretary – to the effect that the bishop was on holiday but would respond when he returned.

To date, not one of those fifty young people has received this promised reply.

‘Search’ in the city of Derry continues in being but is obliged to be entirely self-supporting: it receives no financial support from the diocese.

In light of the serious problem of widespread discontinuation of sacramental practice by young people, and the growing reluctance of many adult lay people to become involved in youth ministry, Bishop Hegarty’s treatment of Derry ‘Search’ and its young members is to us inexplicable.

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5 Bishop Hegarty and ‘Towards Healing’

In February 2005 the Conference of Irish Bishops published the very important document ‘Towards Healing’. Seeking to stem the flood of adverse publicity over the issue of clerical child sex abuse in Ireland it pointed out, correctly, that the huge majority of those who sexually abuse children in Ireland are not clergy or religious.

Even more important, in the following paragraphs it clearly challenged ‘the whole church community’ to respond together to this far wider challenge:

“It is a duty on all of us to help people who have suffered abuse to see the face of Jesus in the life of the Christian community. That means that we all need to learn more about the anguish and harm that child abuse causes and about the need for healing in so many lives. We need to make our communities ones in which the journey towards peace and wholeness can be made…””There are many resources in the community of the Church – spiritual direction, counselling, educational skill, financial know-how, medical and psychiatric expertise, artistic talent – the list could go on. To people with these skills – and with many others – we say, ‘Would you consider putting these at the service of the journey towards the many dimensions of healing that are needed to address the great harm done to those who have suffered child abuse?'”

“It would be a practical and realistic step towards healing if each diocese could call on a pool of people who would be willing to help someone along the road towards putting their life together and, perhaps, towards finding their way back to the Church and to our loving God.”

Greatly welcoming this document, and this challenge, the Irish co-ordinator of our organisation, ‘Voice of the Faithful’ wrote to the Irish Catholic Communications Office in 2005, asking if it was the intention behind the document that every bishop would, in his own diocese, seek to lead his people in a ‘whole church’ response to this challenge. The response was an emphatic ‘Yes’.

Yet to date, twenty months later, Bishop Hegarty has made no publicly recorded mention of this document in his diocese. He has issued no challenge along these lines to his people, e.g. in the form of a pastoral letter. If he has endorsed this challenge in his meeting with his priests, their failure to respond in any way is startling. Convinced of the integrity of the great majority of them we are satisfied that Bishop Hegarty has in fact not recommended it to them either.

We can make this charge with considerable confidence, because in February of this year we wrote to Bishop Hegarty adverting to ‘Towards Healing’ (Appendix 4). Pointing out the challenge issued in the above paragraphs, we explained the goals of our own organisation, and offered to meet with him to discuss these.

Hoping even at this late stage for a new beginning in the diocese, four of us met with Bishop Hegarty on March 10th this year. We expressed the hope that, as a beginning, healing services focused specifically on the abuse issue could be held in the diocese. Although the bishop was not in the least encouraging in his attitude towards our particular mission and role (other than our declared desire to pray for victims), we did at least derive some comfort from his undertaking to put the proposal for healing services to a forthcoming conference of priests.

To date, few such services have been held subsequent to that undertaking.

More significantly, there has still not been any public reference made to ‘Towards Healing’ by the bishop.

Feeling very strongly that an expressed challenge to ‘the whole church community’ to respond to the plight of those who have suffered abuse in Ireland is precisely what the situation demands, we are totally at a loss to account for Bishop Hegarty’s complete silence and inaction in relation to it.

As far as we are aware, Irish bishops generally have made no attempt to undertake a survey of victims of clerical sexual abuse and their families – to determine the extent of their recovery and of their alienation from, or reconciliation with, the church into which they were baptised. Bishop Hegarty’s attitude to ‘Towards Healing’ in Derry suggests a lack of concern over these issues.

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6 The lack of a diocesan Pastoral Council and Pastoral Plan

One other aspect of our meeting with Bishop Hegarty in March is of great importance. We asked him if, in light of the needs of the diocese, he did not think there should be a diocesan pastoral council. To our great surprise, he insisted that the diocese did indeed already have a pastoral council – because he had established one on taking over leadership of the diocese in 1994.

Not ever having heard of it, and unable to find any mention of it in the diocesan directory, we subsequently wrote to the bishop seeking further details on this diocesan pastoral council and its work, (Appendix 5). He responded, informing us that there was in fact no diocesan pastoral council, and adverting instead to the existence of a diocesan finance council (Appendix 6).

We respectfully draw your attention to the fact that not only has the diocese no pastoral council after twelve years of Bishop Hegarty’s ministry, but that the bishop evidently did not know this as late as March 2006. As a diocesan pastoral council is recommended by Canon Law, and as the diocese is in dire need of pastoral planning and a responsible role for qualified lay people in that process, Bishop Hegarty’s lack of knowledge and interest in this matter is quite astonishing.

This failure is again especially important in light of the adjuration given by His Holiness Pope John Paul II to all Irish bishops in 1999 – to create structures that would give Irish lay people a sense of belonging to their own church.

Had Bishop Hegarty his own clear programme for the development of the diocese we would in no way be disposed to be critical. However, in response to our reference to Pope John Paul II’s call to Irish bishops to experiment with new structures Bishop Hegarty replied to us as follows in April of this year: (Appendix 6):

“Throughout the Diocese, at the level of parish, there are various programmes and novel structures which help create that sense of belonging to which Pope John Paul II referred, aimed at deepening prayer and strengthening faith. In the years since the Second Vatican Council this Diocese has seen many developments, amongst which must be listed the dramatic development of prayer groups, consciousness of scripture and a greater awareness of solidarity with. those who suffer throughout the world. I am sure that, you would join with me in welcoming these and other such developments.”

The complete lack of specific or concrete information in this paragraph is immediately striking. What exactly is he referring to? Could not at least one example be given, if the bishop had concrete knowledge of even one parish in which even one of these ‘programmes and novel structures’ exist? What conclusion can be drawn from the fact that there is no quantitative data either – other than the obvious one that the bishop has never thought to conduct an audit of such provision in his diocese, to determine its overall vitality and to address its needs?

More striking still, the bishop is clearly unable in this letter to point to even one initiative that he himself has personally taken to respond to the pope’s call since it was made in 1999, or to ascertain the view of his own people on how they might be given that sense of belonging to which the pope referred.

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7 Contradictory Statements made to Media

Appendix 3, the transcript of the BBC TV interview with Bishop Hegarty in February 2005, seen by viewers of all ages and religious traditions in Ireland, includes the following exchange. In all cases, ‘Q’ indicates the interviewer’s question and ‘R’ indicates Bishop Hegarty’s answer:

Q. “Can I ask you about the Stewardship Trust Fund and the undertaking that the Derry Diocese has taken in terms of what it will contribute”

R. “Er … Yes.”

Q. “What is the undertaking you have made?”

R. “Well, the Stewardship Trust, as many know, was set up in 1996. (It) began with an initial injection of funding from the insurance company. What the Derry diocese is doing… Yes… we have a commitment to expenses of the conference generally. Now in more recent times we’ve found that because of the expenses arising from issues relating to sex abuse and our managing of that, we were forced to provide another source of funding, because what we were paying in the normal way was not adequate to meet those expenses.”

Q. “But the Derry diocese is making a contribution towards the fund which looks after compensation for victims of sex abuse.”

R. “Well compensation is one, is one…”

Q. “But it is an element of it?”

R. “Yes – it’s an element of it surely, and the diocese is making a contribution.”

Q. “How much of a contribution are you making?”

R. “It will be a significant contribution, depending on the size of the diocese.”

Q. “What is your contribution?”

R. “My contribution is very significant.”

Q. “£200,000 a year? £1,000,000 over five years? Is that right?

R. “Well, that wouldn’t be too far off the mark.”

Q. “How are you managing to raise that money?”

R. “I am raising that money in the diocese.”

Q. “Is there a levy on what parishes raise over the year?”

R. “Well, money has to be collected in a particular way – and a levy is as good a way as any.”

Q. “Are you taking 3% from parish incomes towards that fund?”

R. “Yes.”

Q. “Do parishioners know that?”

R. “Well they… some of them, do, and others … they’ll all know it before very long.”

Q. “Did you make an undertaking to write to parishioners?”

R. “Yes, I did … and I will do that.”

Q. “But you have been taking the money up to this point …”

R. “No, listen … ah … I have not been taking any money at all! I have not been taking any money at all! There was one … we just began that very recently. This is now .. this is a very new initiative. There has been one payment, and some parishes have … have decided that they will not run with it until such time as it is an official, you know, notification from the diocesan office.

Q. “Do you not think that you should have written to parishioners as agreed, to tell them as agreed, before the money was taken.”

R. “No I do not. I do not think that at all. I have no difficulty at all, and the people will be told in due course, and they will be very happy with that.”

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We do not underestimate the task of leading any diocese in Ireland in the present climate of ecclesiastical scandal, rampant secularism and widespread disillusionment. Yet we are also convinced that our faith is centred on the most beautiful and loving truth – a truth that Derry, Ireland and the whole western world will always need. And we are certain also that all of the talents necessary for a revival of church and faith are already present in this diocese and lack only a wise and compassionate leader to recognise and harness them.

Such a leader will be strong in faith and love, and will set out to know his diocese intimately. He will understand that the authority of his office depends heavily upon the level of personal trust and respect he can inspire, and will therefore deal with everyone – priests and people – with strict integrity. He will also respond with energy to the obvious need addressed by Pope John Paul II in 1999 – to establish structures which will give all of us a real sense of belonging to our own church. These structures will also, in harmony with Lumen Gentium, allow us to state our pastoral needs and organise ourselves to meet these.

We believe that this diocese deserves such a bishop, but has not had such a bishop since 1994, and does not have such a bishop at present. We ask you to set this right before the legacy of hope, trust and respect that this bishop inherited has been entirely squandered.

Finally we would point out that the need for this document would probably not have arisen if permanent formal structures existed in all Irish dioceses for the expression by the faithful of their pastoral needs and concerns – as was projected by Lumen Gentium over forty years ago. It is the continued inexplicable absence of such structures that has allowed Bishop Hegarty to behave as he has for so long. This structural dysfunction must also end immediately if we are to see a vibrant Catholic Church again in Ireland.

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