The Irish Church's standing in Rome has been dealt a further damaging blow with a high-level Vatican investigation into a complaint of child sexual abuse against a Tipperary-born archbishop.
This is the first instance of an official charge of clerical child molestation being made against an archbishop of Irish nationality, and it comes as the Irish Church is preparing “for the worst” with publication of the Murphy Report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin.
It was learned yesterday Richard Burke (60), Archbishop of Benin, a city in southern Nigeria, stepped aside earlier this year pending the outcome of an ecclesiastical trial by the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Kiltegan missionary archbishop from Fethard, Co Tipperary, who is believed to be in the United States, has not commented on the allegation.
He is accused by Dolores Atwood, a 40-year-old married woman now living in Canada, of sexually abusing her when she was a minor, aged 14, and ill in a Nigerian hospital which he visited as a priest.
She also alleges that she suffered “emotional torture” during a 20-year secret affair which he conducted with her contrary to his vow of celibacy.
Last night St Patrick's Missionary Society in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, also known as the Kiltegan Fathers, revealed it received a complaint from a woman against Archbishop Burke on December 16 last.
“We expressed the deep sorrow and regret of the Society for the suffering the complainant and her family are going through and we affirmed the Society's commitment to child protection,” a statement said.
“We assured her that the Society's Child Protection Policy and Procedures would be adhered to. The Society offered to provide counselling for the complainant.”
The statement confirmed that the Society has complied with a request from the Doctrinal Congregation to send to Rome all relevant documents relating to the allegation so that Rome can exercise full jurisdiction.
“Although a member of St Patrick's Missionary Society, Archbishop Burke ceased to be under the jurisdiction of the Society when he became a bishop and is now under the direct jurisdiction of the Holy See,” the Kiltegan Fathers said.
It was the late Pope John Paul II who consecrated him Bishop of the Nigerian diocese of Warri in March 1997, and in December 2007 Pope Benedict XVI promoted him to Archbishop of Benin City.
According to Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a senior advocate for the Congregation, Pope Benedict was informed of the charges against Archbishop Burke, who will be called to Rome for interrogation before it completes its investigations under oath of confidentiality.