Belfast Telegraph

Concerns over Northern Ireland church handling of 'safeguarding' claim

Canon Francis Brown. Pic:
Canon Francis Brown. Pic:

Concerns have been raised over how a Catholic diocese handled a "safeguarding" allegation made against one of its senior clerics.

On Saturday night the Dromore Diocese announced one of its priests was to step aside over a police investigation into a "historic safeguarding allegation" and both the organisation and the man concerned were cooperating fully with police.

On Sunday Canon Francis Brown, who denies any wrongdoing, confirmed he had voluntarily stood down from his position after being made aware of a complaint. However, he said he was not aware of the details of the claim and he expected to return to full duties following a "thorough and expeditious examination of this matter".

In a statement from his solicitors, they said he "categorically asserts that he has never at any time behaved inappropriately to any child or adult".

"Police have not asked to meet with Canon Brown and, if they do make such a request, he will co-operate fully with them in any investigation which they undertake.

"It is expected that Canon Brown will be treated in accordance with due process and that he will not be deprived of the guarantees and presumptions which attach to this and every investigation. To do otherwise would cause prejudice and harm to the process."

On Wednesday, the BBC Stephen Nolan show reported the priest remained in position after the allegation came to light. After the diocese announced the priest had stepped aside at the weekend, police confirmed they had received a report of the historic allegation in April.

The BBC said the allegation relates to the priest's time at St Colman's College Newry and when details were first passed to the church basic details such as the name of the alleged victim or the name or contact number of the person making the complaint were not recorded.

Child protection expert Jim Gamble said: "When it comes to safeguarding children there is a requirement with regard to transparency. Any good policy would say it is not the responsibility of individual to make judgement as to whether or not the allegations are credible or trure.

"I would assume an organisation that has been through the trauma of this before, that has learned hopefully many lessons from not dealing with it correctly it in the past has actually got its act together."

The Diocese of Dromore said it was aware of the "suggestions and comments" made on the Nolan Show on Wednesday morning. 

"The Diocese also wishes to clarify that Canon Brown was advised of an allegation and agreed to step aside from all ministry within the Diocese and associated bodies," a statement to the Belfast Telegraph said.

"While he may currently be named on some school websites as a member of the safeguarding team he has voluntarily stepped aside from all ministry and such publications are under revision. This status will remain while the police investigation is on going.

The BBC reported that the priest continued to be listed as a contact for safeguarding issues for schools in the parish.

In a statement on the Newry Cathedral Parish website, the online media team stressed it was maintained and managed by volunteers "working from home, as a service to the people of the parish".

"As volunteers, we have day jobs, families and other responsibilities. We do our very best to keep this site up-to-date, but we are not able to provide the same level of responsiveness that a team of employees could."

Police said they are investigating an allegation made to them in April and that it would be inappropriate to comment further.

The diocese has been at the centre of a scandal after it was revealed officials knew of clams made about the paedophile priest Father Malachy Finnegan and did not pass them on to the authorities.

The scandal surrounding the cleric, who died in 2002, emerged in February, four months after the Church agreed a landmark financial settlement with one of his victims.

The police have established a dedicated unit to investigate the claims and how they were handled.

Dr John McAreavey stood down from his post as Bishop of Dromore on March 1 after coming under fire for his handling of the case. The bishop, who took up his position in 1999, was criticised when it emerged he said mass with Finnegan in 2000 and officiated over his funeral mass two years later, despite knowing about allegations against the priest. Dr McAreavey apologised for what he called "an error of judgment".

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