A Church of Ireland minister caught up in a scandal which saw a senior cleric turn down a bishop's post has described their relationship as a "devastating deception of the past".
Belfast minister Tracey McRoberts has broken her silence for the first time in 15 years to clarify the circumstances of her relationship with the Venerable Leslie Stevenson.
Rev McRoberts was the woman at the centre of Mr Stevenson's shock decision to step back from taking up a prestigious appointment as Bishop of Meath and Kildare earlier this year.
The archdeacon (54) announced he would not be taking up the high-profile post in April after admitting to having an "inappropriate" relationship with a parishioner while a rector in Donaghadee around 15 years ago.
Rev McRoberts is a rector at St Matthew's Parish in the Shankill area of Belfast.
However, she was not a minister when she was in a relationship with Rev Stevenson until just a few days before his wedding to his second wife, Ruth, in 1998. At the time, the issue led to Rev Stevenson resigning and leaving his parish in Donaghadee.
In a letter written to the Belfast Telegraph this week, Rev McRoberts said she was keen to clarify the circumstances surrounding their relationship.
The St Matthew's cleric stressed that she was divorced before their relationship began and that she did not know he was engaged.
The cleric (45) also said she never stood in Rev Stevenson's way of becoming a bishop, as she believes in forgiveness.
It is understood the couple were in a relationship for a number of months in 1998 before Rev Stevenson informed Ms McRoberts he was getting married in a few days' time – to someone else.
In the statement, Rev McRoberts said she wished to clarify three points:
* That she was divorced at the time of the relationship.
* Had become involved in good faith.
* Did not know that Leslie Stevenson was involved in any other relationship while they were together.
"I ended the relationship immediately on discovering he had a fiancée some four days before his second marriage took place," she wrote.
"So the 'inappropriate' nature of the relationship was on his part alone and is the reason why he states he believes he fell short of pastoral expectations."
Rev Stevenson's sudden decision to step away from his election as bishop in April caused headlines across Ireland.
Rev McRoberts said the resulting media coverage caused "great hurt" to her family and parishioners.
"For myself, many hurts from the devastating deception of the past have had to be revisited over the last few weeks and so I have delayed in making any contact until now.
"I continue to be very concerned about calling the Church into further disrepute," she added.
"As a Church of Ireland minister, I believe it is important for my parishioners and the wider Church to know beyond doubt that I was not married while with Mr Stevenson, and not knowingly involved with a man I knew to have a fiancée.
"I have never before spoken publicly about the circumstances of my relationship with the Venerable Stevenson. We, my family, friends and I, maintained a silence for over 14 years in an attempt to protect the parishioners in Donaghadee from any hurt that may be caused at discovering the actions that led to their minister resigning and moving from the parish."
Rev McRoberts went on to thank her Select Vestry and the parishioners of both St Matthew's and Donaghadee parishes for their support.
"I would ask your readership for their prayers for my family and these congregations together with those for the Stevenson family and the people of Meath and Kildare at this confusing and difficult time," she added.
The cleric added that she was not opposed to his promotion as bishop.
"I believe we have a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation so have never wished Mr Stevenson any harm," she wrote.
'He deceived me, but I'd never wish him harm'
Tracey McRoberts was a divorced mother-of-one when she began a relationship with Leslie Stevenson. She was a parishioner and he was her rector at the Church of Ireland in Donaghadee.
A divorcee himself, the couple did not publicise their close friendship, nor did they hide it from other parishioners in the Co Down town.
There is no ban in the Church of Ireland on ministers being involved with parishioners. They were both single, as far as Ms McRoberts was concerned, and so there were no restrictions on their friendship.
The relationship blossomed for several months in 1998 until the Donaghadee woman got a phone call from her reverend revealing – completely out of the blue – he was getting married to someone else.
The wedding went ahead four days later and a stunned Ms McRoberts said she had no idea he was dating another woman until then.
It is understood from parishioners in the seaside town that they were unaware of their minister's fiancée and marriage until after it had happened.
Rev Stevenson resigned from the Donaghadee parish in 1999 and moved away.
After a period of "personal discipline" he was appointed rector of Portarlington, Co Laois, where he remains today with his second wife Ruth.
They have one daughter, Judith.
The Church hierarchy was aware of his relationship in Donaghadee – and how it ended.
Ms McRoberts got on with life and, 15 years later, is herself a Church of Ireland minister.
The 45-year-old studied theology and later completed a masters degree in Dublin before her ordination in 2009.
She is now rector of St Matthew's Parish in the Shankill area of Belfast, having moved there last summer.
In what is a tough patch for any minister, Rev McRoberts is a popular, bubbly figure among her congregation. Diminutive, she is more glamorous than your average church minister and has been a bright new addition to the parish rectory on the Ballygomartin Road.
She is believed to have received significant support and understanding from her parishioners in recent months.
The mother staunchly maintained her silence on the romance over 15 years – and had no contact with her former boyfriend – until the issue of their relationship came up once more after Rev Stevenson's election as bishop in January.
Despite the Church of Ireland being aware in 1998 of the relationship, there were no blocks in the way of his appointment as bishop. But Rev Stevenson sent shockwaves through the Church by turning down the role as a bishop just three days before an elaborate ceremony was due to take place at Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral.
Scheduled to be installed as Bishop of Meath and Kildare on Wednesday, May 1 this year, the Church suddenly announced on the Sunday before that he would not be taking up the post.
Archdeacon Stevenson (54) took the shock decision to step away from the promotion over what he described as the "inappropriate" relationship with his parishioner, which had cropped up in newspaper articles after his election.
He had previously admitted that, upon reflection, he believed the relationship should not have happened and represented a falling short of "pastoral expectations".
On the day before his announcement, Rev Stevenson had met with a number of bishops in an "individual capacity to offer pastoral support".
At this meeting, the events surrounding his resignation in Donaghadee came in for "further scrutiny" and the following day the archdeacon walked away from the appointment.
The Belfast man had been elected bishop by the electoral college of Meath and Kildare in January.
Following approval by the Church's House of Bishops, he was on course to be consecrated to succeed Archbishop Richard Clarke, who had become Primate and Archbishop of Armagh.
The decision to elect Archdeacon Stevenson came before the House of Bishops for acceptance and it's understood this meeting was informed of the circumstances which led to him resigning his office in Donaghadee.
Dr Clarke said that members of the House of Bishops had reflected on the events and they decided it was appropriate to accept the decision of the electoral college, paving the way for Rev Stevenson's consecration.
So the archdeacon was just days away from becoming a bishop – until he suddenly decided to decline, thrusting Rev McRoberts into the spotlight.
Church of Ireland sources said Rev McRoberts had attended a meeting with Rev Stevenson and two bishops at some stage between his election and his decision to stand down.
What happened at that meeting is not known, but in a letter to the Belfast Telegraph the rector stressed she did not stand in the way of Rev Stevenson's appointment as bishop.
"I believe we have a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation so have never wished Mr Stevenson any harm," she wrote. "I supported his appointment as Rector of Portarlington and then promotion to Archdeacon of Meath and Kildare and, in the same way, decided to support this appointment to bishop, particularly in light of the fact that the people of this diocese nominated him based on their experience of his ministry among them.
"Life has moved on for all of us and I thank God for the restoration and rehabilitation He offers us as we travel in faith through this life.
"This goodness and mercy must extend to even the very people who have hurt us most if we are to be authentic in living the gospel message out in our daily lives."
The issue reached the highest echelons of the Church of Ireland, with Dr Clarke releasing a lengthy statement to address questions raised by the rejection of the appointment as bishop.
He recognised that Archdeacon Stevenson's decision had "aroused much comment and speculation within and beyond the Church".
"Subsequent to acceptance of the electoral college's decision, events surrounding the resignation of Archdeacon Stevenson in 1999 have come under further scrutiny," he said.
"Mindful of the mounting speculation to which the archdeacon and his family were being subjected, three bishops met with him in an individual capacity to offer pastoral support.
"The bishops expressed their personal concern for the family in the face of intrusion into their lives."
In conclusion, the Primate wrote: "I recognise and accept that Archdeacon Stevenson's decision has come as a shock and a great sadness to many people within the Church of Ireland and beyond.
"I urge the Church to continue to hold all persons affected by these events in their prayers at this time."