The Bishop of Dromore tells Martin O’Brien about ‘missed opportunities’ to expose appalling crimes
During my long stint producing BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, dominated by the apparently unending clerical sex abuse scandals, one bishop was more available than any other to come on the radio to face the music.
That bishop demonstrated then and again when I last spoke to him – on Saturday morning last – that he has a passionate concern for the plight of victims and an empathy with them that few if any other bishops have.
That person is John McAreavey, Bishop of Dromore since 1999. I also found Dr McAreavey helpful to journalists like me. On one occasion, when I was seeking contacts in the Vatican he suggested I look up Charles Scicluna, the determined investigator of clerical abusers at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whom I subsequently visited on several occasions, and who once asked me why virtually all the US priest abusers on his books had Irish surnames.
Now Archbishop of Malta, Scicluna is currently investigating Bishop Barros of Chile on the instructions of Pope Francis, the Holy Father having realised that a damage limitation exercise is necessary after his ill-judged comments about the Barros case on a papal visit to the country last month.
Last Friday Bishop John McAreavey embarked on his own damage limitation exercise.
He did so by offering an interview to The Irish Catholic after his diocese was left reeling in the wake of shocking revelations by the BBC Northern Ireland TV programme, Spotlight, broadcast the previous Tuesday, February 13, about the appalling sex crimes committed by the late Fr Malachy Finnegan, a former president of St Colman’s College, Newry from 1976 to 1987 and parish priest of Clonduff (Hilltown) from 1987 until his forced retirement in 1996. Many of the crimes were perpetrated against pupils in his rooms in the college.
Finnegan was also employed by the college as spiritual director (grotesque when you look back on it) between 1967 and 1971 and as a teacher from 1973 to 1987.
We did the interview, which ran for an hour and a half, in the Newry Parish Centre on Saturday morning. Throughout, Bishop McAreavey, who was unaccompanied, freely answered my questions and was anxious to be as candid and as transparent as possible.
He went “off the record” just once for a few seconds over a relatively minor matter. Only once, when I was trying to extract details of the sums of diocesan money involved in settling cases by three of Finnegan’s victims, did I sense he was reluctant to volunteer information.
On two occasions Bishop McAreavey showed distress, and appeared lost for words, when I asked him how a priest, who had just celebrated Mass and raised the Body of Christ could perpetrate such deeds.
Finnegan died in January 2002, still a priest ‘in good standing’ as far as the public and his fellow priests were concerned. Bishop McAreavey says there have been twelve allegations of abuse against him in the period 1994-2016.
He was never tried in the courts for his wicked crimes nor had he received any canonical sanction by the Church for his sacrilegious and criminal acts which included repeatedly raping a young boy, Sean Faloon, an altar server, over several years in the parochial house in Hilltown.
Finnegan’s crimes did not happen on Dr McAreavey’ s watch as bishop. But the central question facing McAreavey is his failure over almost two decades as bishop, to share with the Catholic community that he tends in Dromore, the dark secret about Finnegan, his fellow diocesan priest.
The bishop accepts that many people in his diocese, particularly in the parish of Clonduff where Mr Faloon had his innocence destroyed, suffering horrifying abuse over a five-year period, starting when he was ten – have lost trust in him because they think he simply covered up for Finnegan to protect the institution of the Church.
However, Dr McAreavey explains that it is not a black and white issue and that he was caught in a dilemma because victims were divided over whether Finnegan’s past should be publicised.
But he now accepts that he missed several opportunities to go public on Finnegan, which he bitterly regrets.
Finnegan’s crimes against children go back almost 50 years to 1971 when he started abusing a victim Spotlight called ‘Patrick’, during the tenure of Bishop Eugene O’Doherty (1944-1977) and continued during the episcopacy of Bishop Francis Brooks (1976 to 1999).
The Spotlight programme was not easy viewing, to say the least, but it served the public interest by centring on the previously untold stories of three of Finnegan’s victims, including Mr Faloon, and raising legitimate questions about what the Church knew about Finnegan, and when it knew.
The Finnegan scandal first came to the attention of the wider public when Bishop McAreavey issued a statement, apparently out of the blue, on February 7, in which he announced that his diocese had settled a claim against Finnegan and apologised for his error of judgement in celebrating the funeral Mass for Finnegan.
On the same day, St Colman’s College, where Bishop McAreavey is chairman of the board of governors, issued a statement disclosing that following the settlement of a diocesan claim back in October [with the victim, ‘Patrick’], the governors had instructed that images of Finnegan be removed from photographs that were on public display in the school.
This applied particularly to pictures of him with Gaelic football teams.
It then emerged that Spotlight was planning a programme about Finnegan. It looked to this writer and others that the earlier simultaneous statements by Bishop McAreavey and St Colman’s were an attempt to pre-empt the Spotlight revelations and limit reputational damage, but this is denied by Bishop McAreavey.
“We continued to do what we had planned to do,” he insists, “the school issued a statement and the diocese followed up. It looks as if we were responding to Spotlight, but we had a process in train.”
Dr McAreavey was careful not to criticise Spotlight, but he had approached The Irish Catholic because: “I think there is a broader story [than that told in Spotlight] and I think it is not black and white, and the issues in this whole matter are complex. I have struggled with various dilemmas and tried to find balance between one thing and another.
“I remember once suggesting to a victim that I was considering putting Finnegan into the public forum and I remember having the sense that this person froze. So, while there were some victims who said, ‘put this out into the public forum’, others were terrified.”
So, wasn’t it a case of victim A or victim B saying, “put it out there” and C and D saying, “hold off, this will open a can of worms that I can’t cope with”, I asked.
“Yes, that was my dilemma in those years. Some victims felt they could not have coped with the media splash through naming this man and rightly or wrongly there are pros and cons with this and you try to balance things.”
He added: “It would have suited me many times to have put this into the public domain, to have this off my conscience, if you like.”
Throughout the interview he kept referring to “Finnegan” or “this man” and on the sole occasion he used the title “Father” he immediately corrected himself.
It was evident to this writer that Dr McAreavey is immensely relieved that the Finnegan story is finally out even if it emerged during our interview that he had no fewer than five “missed opportunities” to make it public in the period from his appointment as bishop in September 1999 and December 2017.
I reminded Bishop McAreavey that in his previous interview with The Irish Catholic in October 2013 he had spoken of “his long learning curve” in relation to the child abuse issue and his frank admission that there were times when his primary response was to protect the Church.
Was his failure to “out” Finnegan motivated by his desire to protect the Church? He rejected that and said that his answer to me in 2013 referred to the early 1990s and not to his time as bishop.
Bishop McAreavey said he first met Finnegan when he spent a year teaching under him in St Colman’s in 1978-79. He “never picked up anything” to suggest future horrors.
If he remembers very much about him, and his personality traits, he is not saying, but says enough to suggest he didn’t particularly like Finnegan. “We were not friends, so I didn’t pal around with him. I felt a distance between us and I was happy to leave it [at that].”
He first became aware of an allegation against Finnegan in 1994 when Bishop Brooks asked him to give pastoral support to a victim who was then living in the Republic, maybe because he also lived there. I was intrigued why Brooks should ask Fr McAreavey, a canon lawyer, to carry out a pastoral role. “That was the brief I was given, to be a kind of victim liaison person.”
Had Brooks ever drawn on his expertise to carry out inquiries of the kind that resulted in landing Fr Seán Brady in hot water so many years later, I asked. “No, no, my contact with Bishop Brooks in those years was specifically to do with this particular case, in that pastoral role.”
“That first experience I had with that victim defined my whole approach to this issue for the rest of my life, leading to a victim-centred approach. You saw the impact of abuse on every aspect of their life, on their physical and mental health, their work, relationships and not least on their faith, which was disastrous.”
That ‘victim-centred’ approach has led him to meet numerous victims and help meet their needs “but what it doesn’t do is acknowledge the victims that don’t come forward. And it is arguable that by not making a public statement there are other people who could have come forward and didn’t come forward, such as the people who are coming forward now.”
“I find myself in a situation now, where all that people know is what I didn’t do.”
He says he told Bishop Brooks in the mid-1990s of his [the bishop’s] responsibility to inform the authorities, as he considered Brooks to be in charge of “the overall management of the case” and felt confident at the time Brooks would do it.
When he himself took over as bishop in 1999 he saw a letter from Brooks’ solicitor confirming the obligation to inform the civil authorities which stated, “when you do that it will cover Fr McAreavey.”
However, more than 20 years later he says: “In truth I do not know whether he [Brooks] reported that or not, there is no record.”
Was Finnegan ever canonically censured as a priest? “No, that was the bishop’s call.”
He says Bishop Brooks “forcibly retired” Finnegan in 1996 after he returned from therapy at a centre for the treatment of paedophiles in Stroud, Gloucestershire.
But, given what he now knows about the ways of paedophiles does he consider Finnegan remained a danger to children up towards 2000, until his health declined through dementia? “Yes, I have to say yes because the capacity of the diocese at that time to monitor an abuser scarcely existed.”
Bishop McAreavey says many members of the faithful in his diocese rightly ask why the Finnegan case only came to light so recently. “Absolutely, one of the biggest mistakes in relation to the management of the Finnegan case is that Bishop Brooks did not put it into the public forum when he asked him to retire. Had that happened many of the subsequent mistakes and developments would not have happened.”
He contrasts Brooks’ inaction with his [McAreavey’s] decision [admittedly, I must add, in very different times] to publicly announce when priests ‘step aside’ and his decision to publicly confirm allegations against the late Fr Séamus Reid in 2015.
However, I put it to Dr McAreavey that he had the power to put the Finnegan case into the public domain the moment he became bishop in September 1999.
“It pains me yet that I didn’t, but what I effectively did was to accept the arrangements in place when I came [to be bishop].”
Was this him protecting the institution, I persist? “I don’t think I set out to protect anything or anybody, you take the diocese as it is, as you find it and you pick up the reins.”
He says he visited Finnegan shortly after he became bishop by which time his health was in decline. Any signs of remorse, I ask? “I don’t remember him saying very much, I don’t recall him saying ‘I have done serious wrong.’”
By his own account in this interview, Bishop McAreavey had four further opportunities to redress the consequences of that first “big mistake” by Bishop Brooks, which he deeply regrets.
November/December 2002: One of Finnegan’s victims, Paul Gilmore, expressed his anger at Dr McAreavey’s decision to say the funeral Mass and in email correspondence reported by Spotlight asked the Bishop to publicise Finnegan. He declined, although he admits to being “stung by a victim’s perception that I was siding with Finnegan.”
February 2006: After the publication of the book Up the Creek with a Paddle, in which American author Mary Anne Boyle Bradley revealed that her husband had been abused by Finnegan, the bishop felt “At that point I thought, gosh, this is an opportunity. I invited somebody round from social services and he specifically advised me not to do it.”
June 2011: Bishop McAreavey had specifically asked the National Board for Safeguarding Children to go beyond their terms of reference to include deceased priests, especially Finnegan, in their review of the diocese and expected journalists to question him about this. They didn’t, and the bishop didn’t prompt them. “I would certainly have named Malachy Finnegan for my peace of mind. Later I would ask myself, why didn’t I just do it?”
November/December 2017: The pictures of Finnegan had been removed from St Colman’s pending their digital alteration, but the public were not told and another opportunity for a cathartic public naming of Finnegan was missed.
Bishop McAreavey said there had been three “formal settlements”, to ‘Patrick’ in November, to the victim of the first allegation about five years ago, also abused in St Colman’s and to Mr Faloon in the early-2000s.
He said these settlements cumulatively came to hundreds of thousands of pounds and the diocese “had made some provision for this” and they had not been covered by insurance.
Dr McAreavey says the two main pastoral concerns now are “first, the ongoing care of victims and second, to support priests and people who are affected by it.”
“I am very aware of the shock and anger of people, especially in Clonduff, where Sean Faloon was abused and Malachy Finnegan was parish priest.”
I asked Bishop McAreavey if in the light of recent developments, he still believed, after 19 years, that he had what it takes to remain at the helm and bring the necessary healing and renewal to Dromore or whether it might be more beneficial for the diocese to get a fresh start.
Bishop McAreavey said: “Well, the Spotlight programme came out on Tuesday, so we are still in the first week of that. Just as people across the parishes are still trying to digest that, to understand what happened, and [this interview] is part of an effort also to help people understand what was happening.
“So, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to make a kind of a kneejerk reaction.
“Certainly, the whole issue of safeguarding has been a massive preoccupation of my time as Bishop and a stressful one for myself and for victims and for priests and so on.
“So, what I will want to do is for the good of the diocese. I will obviously reflect in the coming period as to how best to go forward with that.
“On a plus side, I have learned a huge amount and I think I would want to say that I think my heart was in the right place. But obviously when you are in a leadership role around issues as sensitive as this it is easy for trust to be damaged, so the question really is to assess that and to see can you recover trust and rebuild trust.
“This happens in marriage relationships all the time and in all kinds of relationships, so the question is to try and assess that and do what is for the best,” Bishop McAreavey adds.