Revealed: Derry priest at centre of abuse cover-up
‘Man of God’ who took a shameful fall from grace
Casually leaning on a fence with the city of Derry stretching out behind him, Fr John McCullagh happily promotes himself in a 1981 television documentary about his life and work as a man of God.
But behind this face of Catholic propriety is a man who had allegedly been sexually abusing a young girl for the past two years — and would go on abusing her for the next eight.
Also captured in the background of this image are the scenes of many of his alleged crimes against the young child who told the Belfast Telegraph that McCullagh would take her for drives in his car and that “there is not a road in either Co Derry or Donegal that I wasn’t abused on”.
McCullagh was ordained in Maynooth in 1961 and served in several parishes in the Derry diocese.
At the time of this documentary in which he is pictured — The Priest’s Tale, which was aired on BBC 2 in September 1981 — McCullagh had befriended a local family. As a respected member of the Catholic Church the family had welcomed him into their home and were happy that he seemed to take such an interest in their little girl, who was eight when the alleged abuse first took place in 1979.
McCullagh started taking the young girl out in the car with him and bought her sweets, chocolate and presents. But what seemed like an innocent affection for the child soon turned into something deeply sinister.
“He would ask for a hug in thanks, but soon the hugs would get longer and longer and tighter and tighter. Then it would be a kiss on the cheek, but it wasn’t long before it was a peck on the lips, then full kisses until he was abusing me really badly every time he saw me,” his victim told the Belfast Telegraph.
It was not until her 18th birthday in 1989 that his victim finally broke down and confided in her parents about the years of abuse she had been subjected to.
Not knowing who to turn to for help this God-fearing family decided to refer the abuse allegations to the Catholic Church — and so began 10 years of meetings between the family and the Catholic hierarchy in the Derry diocese.
In 1994 Bishop Seamus Hegarty told the family that McCullagh would be removed from the diocese and not work in an environment where he had access to girls. The victim’s father, however, said that the family soon discovered that the Church had gone back on its reassurances and that McCullagh was back working in the diocese.
“Bishop Hegarty was totally unsympathetic. He just glared at me and scowled that this priest was seriously ill, as if I should feel pity on him,” the victim’s father said.
After years of frustration the family decided to take legal action in a bid for justice and to keep McCullagh away from young girls. On December 13, 2000, the family reached an out of court settlement for £12,000. Legal documents relating to the settlement name the Most Reverand Dr Edward Daly, the Most Reverand Seamus Hegarty and McCullagh as defendants in the civil action. As well as the money the victim also received a self-pitying, hand-written letter from McCullagh.
In the letter McCullagh appears almost dismissive of his victim's suffering and talks about his own “pain”.
It added: “I regret the pain and distress I brought to you and ask you for some forgiveness.”
McCullagh, who is still registered as a priest but is no longer in active ministry, is currently leading a quiet life at an address in the Derry diocese.