Church rocked by claim that Belfast priest got parishioner pregnant
'He preyed on me then betrayed me after I showered him with gifts worth £20,000'
A priest accused of defying his vow of celibacy to have an affair with a woman who became pregnant was forced to cancel a talk to parishioners about marriage just days before the scandal became public.
The 49-year-old businesswoman at the centre of the storm, known only as 'Linda', claimed she got pregnant by Fr Ciaran Dallat (51) before she miscarried at five weeks.
The north Belfast woman claimed that Fr Dallat, an assistant priest at St Peter's Cathedral just off Belfast's Falls Road, slept with her three or four times a week during the relationship, which began in September 2012 and lasted until April 2014.
During that time, the woman said she showered the priest with gifts worth £20,000. They included a two-week Nordic cruise that cost £3,700; meals at some of Belfast's most exclusive restaurants; designer clothes and top-of-the-range furnishings for his apartment near St Peter's Cathedral, in the heart of one of west Belfast's most deprived communities.
Linda claimed the affair only ended in April last year - two weeks after her mother died.
She said Fr Dallat told her how a "voice from God" said he could not continue to see her.
The previous year, Linda said Fr Dallat sent her a Valentine's Day card in which he wrote: "Words will never convey the love I have for you - thank you for all the love."
She believed he would leave the priesthood to continue their relationship - but it never happened.
In a twist of fate, Fr Dallat was due to talk about the sanctity of marriage on Sunday, March 15 at St Peter's. But it was dramatically postponed on the parish bulletin as news of the scandal began to emerge.
A hint of what was to come followed later in the day in a radio broadcast of St Peter's morning service. Listeners were told: "The church contains both saints and sinners, but we believe each is equally loved by God."
Linda said she recently told the Bishop of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor, about the allegations and told him she wanted the priest moved out of Belfast.
She also asked for her £20,000 to be returned so she could give it to charity - but feeling fobbed off by the Church she made her claims public. Linda told the Sunday Life: "He groomed me, he preyed on me and then he betrayed me."
She said Fr Dallat first took an interest in her when she was on a pilgrimage in Italy and later told her: "I have waited my whole life for someone like you."
Linda claimed they first slept together two months later during a trip to the holy site of Medjugorje. She claimed the clergyman arrived at her room and demanded: "Take your clothes off."
She added: "The cruellest thing Fr Dallat did was leave me two weeks after my mother died. He told me that he had heard a voice from God telling him that he could not continue the relationship with me.
"But then bouquets of flowers and cards from him started appearing outside my door late at night. On one occasion he asked me: 'Do you want me to resign from the priesthood?'."
Last night, many parishioners attending evening Mass at St Peter's expressed forgiveness or sympathy for Fr Dallat, but said the controversy had raised difficult questions - particularly over the issue of whether priests should be allowed to marry.
One worshipper said: "I feel sorry for him in a way. There are two sides to every story. It was in the paper about him sending a Valentine's card and I suppose that is truth in itself that he maybe had feelings for the woman.
"I suppose, in a way, maybe he is at a stage in his life wondering if the priesthood is for him." The Mass-goer said he felt that priests telling others how to conduct their marriages was a step too far.
"The admiral of the fleet can't tell the captain how to steer the ship if he has never been there himself - so for a priest to tell the public about being married is a bit much," he said.
However, he said Fr Dallat should continue "definitely, 120%, as a priest, because probably deep down inside he is a man of faith and religion but vulnerable like us all".
There have been a number of high-profile cases in Ireland of priests having relationships and fathering children with women, including Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary.
In recent days a childhood friend of Pope Francis claimed the leader of the Church intended to overturn the marriage ban.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said: "We don't know what the Pope may have said as part of a private conversation.
"We only know what he says in public.
"Since such conversations do not form part of the Pope's public activities, no comments from the press office should be expected."