Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Tyrone priest 'was frozen out by church for informing on colleague over child porn'

Co Tyrone priest lifts lid on his treatment in Florida for whistleblowing

By Greg Harkin

Published 25/01/2016

Ostracised: Father John A Gallagher
Ostracised: Father John A Gallagher
Retired: Sister Ann Monahan
Shamed priest: Father Jose Palimattom appearing on the local TV news after his arrest
Shamed priest: Father Jose Palimattom appearing on the local TV news after his arrest
Accused: Fr Jose Palimattom

A US-based priest from Co Tyrone who called police after a colleague showed sickening child porn images to a 14-year-old boy says he has been 'frozen out' by the Catholic Church over his stance.

Father John A Gallagher is living in a friend's home after locks at his parochial house were changed and he was placed on medical leave by his bishop in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida.

The 48-year-old claims he was told by a church official to put a paedophile priest on a plane rather than co-operate with police.

A local police chief, so concerned at the Irish cleric's treatment, wrote to church leaders to complain about how the whistleblower is being treated.

Fr Gallagher broke his year-long silence over the affair to tell how the priest from India at the centre of the abuse scandal is a danger to children.

He says he has been unable to find out where the priest is now.

He has written to bishops and cardinals in Ireland and America about the case - as well as Vatican officials - and has, so far, been unable to get a satisfactory response.

Fr Gallagher is originally from Strabane. He served the Long Tower parish in Londonderry until 2000 before taking up a post in the US.

The astonishing case began in January last year when Father Jose Palimattom - who had been at the parish of the Holy Name of Jesus Christ Catholic Church in West Palm Beach for just four weeks - approached a 14-year-old boy after Mass.

He showed the teenager up to 40 images of naked boys.

Police believe he was in the first stages of grooming his victim.

Later that night, Palimattom sent the boy a message on Facebook which read: "Good night. Sweet dreams."

However, the teenager told a friend who reported it to the church choirmaster, who immediately told Father Gallagher.

The priest says he was told that night by a church official in Florida: "We need to make him go away, put on a plane".

In documents filed to the Vatican by a specialist Canon Lawyer on behalf of Fr Gallagher, the priest claimed he was instructed 'do not keep written notes' by the same church official. The legal document was sent to Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

After the incident involving the boy, Fr Gallagher disregarded the instruction to put Fr Palimattom on a plane to Bangalore.

Instead, he interviewed Fr Palimattom along with a retired police officer, who was one of his parishioners.

The parishioner, who took notes at the meeting, said the Indian priest not only admitted showing nude pictures of boys to the local teenager, but also admitted he had sexually assaulted young boys in India before arriving in the States.

It was a confession he would repeat within hours to detectives assigned to the case from a specialist unit of the West Palm Beach Police.

Fr Gallagher said he immediately called the Sheriff's Department of the West Palm Beach police, following rules set down by the American Church after hundreds of child sex abuse scandals.

Some of those cases in Boston are featured in the new movie 'Spotlight' released here last weekend.

The Irish cleric is well-known throughout the Catholic community in the States, has made several religious music records and has made numerous television appearances.

In 2012, the then Pope Benedict XVI wrote him a personal note, thanking him for his work with the church.

But all that was a distant memory last year, he says, when he says he began to feel "the wrath" of the Church.

"It was made clear to me that what I had done (co-operating with the police) wasn't what I should have done," he said.

"It was a very distressing time for me and the parish. But we had a special Mass and I told the congregation what had happened. I told them it was now in the hands of the rightful authorities, the police.

"Palimattom was on the local TV news as his arrest became public. I did the right thing."

Church officials dealt with the boy and his family through lawyers and an out-of-court settlement was made.

In February, says Fr Gallagher, he learned of a bid to have him moved at a meeting attended by around 100 Hispanic Catholics, most of them from outside the parish.

He had brought in a Spanish priest to celebrate Spanish Masses and was unaware of any complaints.

In late April, he says, he was called to a meeting by the Bishop of Palm Beach, Gerald Barbarito. Three other officials were there.

Fr Gallagher says he was due to be promoted, but instead was told to continue in his role for another year, when it would be reviewed again.

He says he wasn't happy with the decision, but was completely unprepared for a phone call from Bishop Barbarito the next day.

"He told me I was being demoted," said Father Gallagher.

"No reason was given. I asked if I could meet with him again and this was refused. He said if I didn't wish to be demoted and moved to another parish, I should leave the priesthood."

Less than four weeks later Fr Gallagher was rushed to hospital in an ambulance with a suspected heart attack after becoming unwell whilst hearing Confessions.

He says he felt aggrieved when Bishop Barbarito visited him in hospital but didn't anoint him or bring Communion.

Six days later he asked Dominican nun Sister Ann Monahan to retrieve files on the Fr Palimattom scandal from his office at the Holy Name of Jesus Christ church.

She managed to do this, but when she returned later, she was stopped by church officials and the keys to the building taken off her.

"I was told to leave. When I protested, I was told 'you're fired'," Sister Monahan (84) said.

"I'm a Dominican and our motto is 'The Truth' and that is all Father John ever did as a priest, tell the truth.

"I've been a nun for 67 years and I felt I was treated badly and Father John was treated very badly indeed. I find it hard to forgive them (the Church) for what happened."

She has now been officially retired.

When Fr Gallagher got out of hospital he returned to his parochial house to find the locks changed. A new priest had been appointed.

He had been due to leave, under the bishop's orders, a month later, in July.

"I was in shock," said Fr Gallagher. "I had just suffered a suspected heart attack and wanted to return to my home to recover. Instead, I was homeless."

A letter from the bishop to his priest suggested he needed 'treatment' for his mental health and an all-expenses paid trip was offered to a clinic in Pennsylvania.

Fr Gallagher refused to go and has been on paid leave since.

When police involved in the child porn scandal learned of his absence, they wrote to Church leaders including Cardinal Sean O'Malley in Boston, who heads a pontifical commission for the Protection of Minors set up by Pope Francis in 2014.

Chief Deputy in the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office Michael Gauger said in 44 years as a police officer he had witnessed many other events where church staff had actually impeded investigations.

"Due to Fr Gallagher's co-operation the case was swiftly resolved and the opportunity for additional crimes was diminished," he wrote.

"Educated in the pattern of behaviour by those engaged in this inappropriate behaviour, the crime could have escalated to something physical which would have been devastating to the victim as well as the Catholic Church."

He urged Cardinal O'Malley to make sure Fr Gallagher "receive accolades for his compliance with criminal investigators".

Detective Debi Phillips - in a memo to Gauger written on May 5 before Fr Gallagher's heart attack - said she had been hindered by the church in a previous investigation and expected to face the same opposition in his case.

"Much to my surprise, I was wrong," she wrote.

"Reverend Gallagher and his staff provided timely evidence that was needed to arrest and ultimately convict Jose Palimattom for the felony charge of Showing Obscene Material to a Child.

"If it wasn't for the co-operation ... other children would have also been victimised."

Fr Gallagher has been living in a holiday home loaned to him by a parishioner since last July.

His Bishop only communicates with him via Fr Gallagher's specialist Canon Lawyer.

He has written numerous letters to bishops and cardinals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bishop Diarmuid Martin wrote back to him, and left a voice message, and Fr Gallagher believes that the church in Ireland can help "break the wall of silence over here (in Florida)".

He went on: "Because of the structure of the church, each diocese is run separately from the other, so there is no broad church.

"This is now 2016 and this is what happens to whistleblowers in the Catholic Church.

"Pope Francis speaks of ridding our church of the crimes of sexual abuse and being open and honest about doing it. I haven't seen that in Pope Francis's Church yet."

Both the parish where Father Gallagher served and his Diocesan headquarters, including the bishop, were asked to comment.

Despite numerous emails and phone calls to the Palm Beach Diocese, there was no response.

Mgr Robert Oliver, the secretariat of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome - set up by Pope Francis in 2014 - said the commission could not comment on individual cases.

The Commission is headed by American Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

He did not respond to our press query. He did, however, call Father Gallagher last Wednesday and listened to what he had to say.

Fr Palimattom's order in India - the Franciscans Province of St Thomas The Apostle - also declined to comment.

After the priest's arrest, and before his conviction, the order described him as a "good God-fearing priest and a gentleman".

The order also said they had never received any prior complaints in India about the 48-year-old.

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