A pervert priest exposed as a serial paedophile by the Belfast Telegraph has taken his secrets to the grave, never having faced justice.
Fr John McCullagh (80) was found dead in the Maghera retirement home he fled to after it was revealed he had sexually abused a girl in Londonderry for seven years from when she was just eight-years-old. The priest never revealed the full extent of his depravity against young girls, with many more victims thought to have remained silent.
It was not until her 18th birthday in 1989 that his victim finally broke down and confided in her parents about the years of abuse she had been subjected to.
She said McCullagh would take her for drives in his car and that "there is not a road in either Co Derry or Donegal that I wasn't abused on".
Other victims did come forward in the wake of the Belfast Telegraph expose, but McCullagh never faced justice in court.
His vile actions were covered up by the then bishops of the Derry Diocese who were party to a confidentiality clause which the victim was forced to sign in 2000 as part of a settlement which was finalised on the day the case was due to be heard in court.
Dozens of priests and the three retired bishops of Derry Diocese are expected to take part in a funeral Mass for McCullagh at his home parish of St Patrick's Gortin in line with other clerical funerals, where he will be buried with full religious honours. In contrast, his victim and her family will spend the day at home in quiet reflection, knowing that the man who wreaked such devastation across their family circle will never harm another child.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, her mother said her thoughts are with the other victims who missed out on justice.
She said: "I was a bit stunned when I heard he was dead but once I got over the shock my thoughts turned to all the other victims. We got justice of a sort, we got him named in the paper so that everyone knew what he really was and what he did, but we know our daughter was not the only girl he hurt and it is those others that I feel for now.
"I know there were priests and bishops that knew how guilty he was and they helped cover it up, let them look to their own conscience now too. But the way I am looking at it, he will have to face God and be judged.
"Maybe now we can at long last put this behind us."
McCullagh died at the retirement home in Maghera where he moved to after leaving the parochial house in Barrack Street in Strabane where he was placed by Auxiliary Bishop Francis Lagan after his victim's family reported his abuse. He was forbidden from saying Mass in the parish but it is thought he did still say daily Mass at the convent in Strabane.
He shared a house with the parish priest, Fr Declan Boland, who later said at no time did any of the bishops tell him about the allegations against McCullagh.
Fr McCullagh's body was removed yesterday evening to St Patrick's Church in Gortin for Requiem Mass today at 3pm and interment afterwards in his family burial ground.
Traditionally when a member of the Catholic clergy dies, a large number of priests from a various dioceses attend the funeral, and in the case of the Derry Diocese it is normal for all three retired bishops to also attend.
The Media Liaison Officer for the Derry Diocese, Fr Michael Canny said he was unsure what the arrangements were for McCullagh's funeral but added he thought they would be similar to any other priest's funeral.
How one young girl dismantled wall of secrecy
Disgraced cleric John McCullagh will be buried at St Patrick's Church in Gortin and goes to his grave with his reputation in tatters, exposed as the depraved child abuser he was.
In 2010 the Belfast Telegraph revealed how the family of a young Londonderry girl went to the Auxiliary Bishop of Derry, Francis Lagan, and told him how Fr McCullagh had abused their daughter for seven years from when she was just eight years of age.
The Church's response was to move Fr McCullagh to the parish of Strabane but not to tell the parishioners or Parish Priest Fr Declan Boland anything about the allegations against him.
The girl was forced to sign a confidentiality clause of a document effectively banning her from ever speaking in public about the years of abuse she endured, or about a payment of £12,000 she received or even about a letter of apology by McCullagh to his young victim full of sorry excuses.
All of this only came to light after the girl bravely decided to go against the enforced silence and speak to the Belfast Telegraph.
She told of how John McCullagh ingratiated himself into her family and being the religious people they were, they saw this as a great honour.
He was a well-known, almost celebrity cleric, who cynically featured in a TV documentary extolling his work as a man of God.
Before long McCullagh set his sights on one of the daughters and so began a grooming process that led to her being abused on almost a daily basis until she was 15 years old.
He started taking the young girl out in the car with him and bought her sweets, chocolate and presents, but what seemed like an innocent affection for the child soon turned into something deeply sinister.
She said: "He would ask for a hug in thanks, but soon the hugs would get longer and longer and tighter and tighter.
"Then it would be a kiss on the cheek, but it wasn't long before it was a peck on the lips, then full kisses until he was abusing me really badly every time he saw me."
She eventually broke down and told her parents what this so-called family friend had been doing to her.
Crushed, the girl's father went straight to Bishop Lagan who was covering for Bishop Edward Daly who was ill.
So began 10 years where the Church fudged the issue and gave false assurances to the family that they would keep McCullagh away from any environment where he would have access to other children.
They also said that he would be removed too from active ministry and would be forbidden from celebrating Mass.
These promises were reneged on as the family discovered for themselves when they spotted John McCullagh casually walking up the street in the Strabane parish he had been shifted to, wearing his full priestly garb.
The family reported this to Bishop Seamus Hegarty who by this time had been appointed as successor to Bishop Daly, but got no satisfaction.
"Bishop Hegarty was totally unsympathetic. He just glared at me and scowled that this priest was seriously ill, as if I should feel pity on him," the victim's father said.
In a desperate bid to protect their daughter from further pain and to safeguard other little girls the family prepared for legal action.
On the day the case was listed for hearing an approach to the family was made by the legal teams representing the priest offering an out of court settlement, without an admission of liability to his victim.
All she would have to do would be to sign a confidential agreement between all the parties forbidding them from ever discussing the details.
The other names on this gagging order were Bishop Seamus Hegarty, Bishop Edward Daly and Fr John McCullagh.
The world would never have known the sordid life of this high profile priest if it wasn't for the bravery of his young victim who decided to break the conditions of the confidential document.
Exposed, McCullagh once again ran away, this time to a retirement home in Maghera where he died on Wednesday.
Once his name was placed in the public domain by the Belfast Telegraph the floodgates opened and other victims came forward, not just to the Belfast Telegraph but also to the police. It is our understanding that the PSNI were contacted by a number of victims following this exposure and made statements of their abuse at the hands of John McCullagh.
It is also believed that police officers were actively working on a prosecution case against McCullagh and despite his advanced years – he was 80 at the time of his death – McCullagh faced the real possibility of a court case and guilty verdict.
However, those victims will now never get their day in court or see justice.