Belfast Telegraph

Ivan Little on Fr Stephen Crossan: As booze flowed on holiday island, scandal-hit clergyman was swearing like a trooper

By Ivan Little

The scandal-hit priest caught on camera snorting cocaine in a parochial house in Co Down was the least likely cleric I have ever met.

As Fr Stephen Crossan sat drinking shorts and swearing like a trooper in a beach bar in the sunshine island of Gran Canaria last year, the craic was ninety. But I hadn't a notion that he was a priest.

Despite his colourful language, my wife and I enjoyed his company after our chance encounter as the sun went down near Meloneras in February 2015.

>> Northern Ireland priest 'caught snorting cocaine in parochial house with Nazi memorabilia on display'<< 

He and a young friend were sitting at the next table to where my wife and I were drinking our customary tomato juices at sunset.

After talking the usual holiday talk about our respective hotels and restaurants, I innocently asked him what he did for a living back home.

His answer was not what I was expecting.

"I'm a priest," he said as he knocked back another drink. The words "you're kidding" were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

"No, I am a priest," he said.

Feeling almost guilty that he could be talking his way into a minefield in front of me, I pointed out that I was a reporter, but he said: "I know exactly who you are."

Yet, still the banter and the booze kept flowing, and I had to keep reminding myself that the man beside me was a man of the cloth.

He wasn't the first priest with whom I'd shared a drink or the first one who could eff and blind with the worst of us sinners.

Fr Stephen was hardly Father Jack, played in Father Ted by actor Frank Kelly, who ironically died on the very day that Fr Stephen's drug-taking was exposed in a Sunday newspaper.

Equally, he could scarcely have been further removed from many of the more staid priests I had encountered in my professional and private life, including my wife's uncle who was a priest in Co Cavan and who would hardly have tried Coca-Cola, never mind coke.

Fr Stephen told me that he holidayed regularly on Gran Canaria, staying normally in the island's hottest hotspot of Playa del Ingles, where anything goes. And frequently does.

He talked of partying and how he told people he was a social worker. He never mentioned drugs. Not once. And though I did find his demeanour unusual for a priest, I put it down to the youthful exuberance of a young man on his holidays, and besides, I couldn't help liking him.

Yet, still I was a doubting Thomas.

As soon as I returned to my hotel I googled Fr Stephen Crossan's name to establish if my companion really was who he said he was.

Sure enough, there was his picture in his vestments, though in the photograph he was at least three stone heavier than he was in Gran Canaria.

Back home I told a few friends about Fr Stephen without identifying him, but I never thought of writing about him.

Until several months later when I was asked by this newspaper to write a feature on how clerics from the four main Churches viewed Easter.

I thought Fr Stephen might have observations that would be worth recording.

As we chatted on the telephone, it was like talking to a different man from the one I'd met in the Canary Islands.

Gone were the swear words and the laugh-a-minute banter.

He talked seriously and thoughtfully about how he saw the Catholic Church in modern-day Ireland.

He said: "It's getting smaller and society is changing. So we have to adapt as well to try to move on with the times and be more open and more inclusive with people.

"We are in a period of transition and flux and we need patience and courage to go ahead into the future and not be afraid."

He expressed concern that many young people were no longer committed to the Church. "But for me the most important thing is that the doors are open and that young people know they are welcome and that we are here if they need us," he said.

Fr Crossan said that he had trained as a teacher in London and worked for the Housing Executive for a time.

He told me: "I took the scenic route into the priesthood. After school I went to Maynooth and Rome to study but then I left because I was probably too young. There were 34 of us at the start in Maynooth in 1997 and only four of us were ever ordained. It was a very difficult time back then.

"I was away for four years but I went back in 2004 and was ordained in 2008. My faith had never been shaken."

That was the last time I spoke to Fr Stephen. But I did hear from him again.

In June last year he sent me a text wondering if I was back in Gran Canaria as he was.

I replied that I wasn't there but I hoped he would have a good holiday.

It now appears that the pictures of Fr Crossan snorting coke were taken the following month during a night of drinking in Banbridge.

He was in a room with Nazi memorabilia and reportedly said "I shouldn't" as he was offered the powder to snort.

Questioned about the cocaine, Fr Stephen told a reporter from the Sun on Sunday: "It was just the one night and that was it."

He also denied that he was a Nazi and said he was a collector of historical items from around the world.

He also said he was on sick leave at the time of the video and that he had since left the Church.

The Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey, said that Fr Crossan had been granted leave from his pastoral duties at Seapatrick near Banbridge in May 2015 and had been receiving counselling.

A statement from the Bishop said the priest had asked for an extended leave of absence in February 2016.

Bishop McAreavey said he was concerned for the priest's health, and I know it's a feeling shared by his friends.

Yesterday I sent a text to Fr Stephen asking him if he wanted to talk about his situation.

He acknowledged my message but I'm still waiting to hear if he wants to say anything more.

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