Belfast Telegraph

Dromore diocese, with just 20 parishes and fewer than 30 priests, is one of Ireland's smallest... so why then has Pope Francis just declared it as being unfit for purpose?

The arrival of retired cleric Dr Philip Boyce is aimed at restoring order after the resignation of Bishop John McAreavey over the Malachy Finnegan child abuse scandal

Bishop John McAreavey
Bishop John McAreavey
Malachy Finnegan

By Martin O'Brien

The fervent hope of the priests and lay faithful in the diocese of Dromore will be that yesterday's formal arrival of retired bishop Dr Philip Boyce to take temporary charge of the troubled diocese on the explicit orders of the Pope, and the celebration of the Mass of Chrism in Newry Cathedral, will bring some semblance of order after a month of confusion and disarray.

That said, few doubt that Dromore - one of the smallest dioceses in Ireland with just 22 parishes and fewer than 30 priests - remains in a state of crisis, maybe even an existential crisis. The crisis has been triggered by revelations about the sex crimes of a deceased priest who was also a diocesan college headmaster and how they were hushed up for decades, first by the late Bishop Francis Brooks and then by Bishop John McAreavey, who was forced to tender his resignation on March 2.

Well-placed sources in Dromore diocese told me this week that the viability of such a small diocese has been an issue in the background for many years in the context of the shortage of priests.

The Pope took just 24 days to accept the resignation of Bishop McAreavey. That is fast by Vatican standards.

There are four diocesan vacancies in Ireland because of "normal" resignations (when the bishop submits his resignation having reached 75) and, after up to four years, the bishops concerned are still waiting to be told to hand over the reins to new blood and take things easy. Spare a thought for John Kirby in Clonfert in Galway, who will be 80 in October.

But John McAreavey's resignation was far from normal. Just gone 69, he would have been expected to remain in charge until 2025.

Monday's announcement signifies that Rome concurs with the observation of one very senior local cleric who said: "Dromore is dysfunctional, it is in a mess."

The appointment of Dr Boyce (78), former Bishop of Raphoe, as apostolic administrator (ie the Pope's own man to govern the diocese on a temporary basis) with virtually all the powers and duties of a diocesan bishop means that there is recognition in Rome at the highest level that the diocese of Dromore needs sorting after Dr McAreavey's sudden decision.

One well-informed Church source said: "That precipitate decision by Bishop McAreavey will not have pleased Rome. He jumped the gun." Others point out that Dr McAreavey had little option once he had lost the trust of so many of his flock. The clue to Pope Francis's recognition that Dromore diocese is in crisis and needs special attention comes in the notes for editors in the statement announcing the pontiff's decision, issued by the Catholic Communications Office in Maynooth. It said: "An apostolic administrator is appointed to temporarily govern a diocese when special, or serious, circumstances warrant such an appointment. He governs in the name of the Holy Father."

Those special circumstances are obvious. The diocese has been reeling since BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme revealed details of the Fr Malachy Finnegan clerical sex abuse scandal six weeks ago, which eventually forced Dr McAreavey to write his resignation letter. Finnegan was spiritual director, teacher and then president of St Colman's College in Newry from 1967 to 1987, during which time he subjected some pupils to sexual and other abuse before his appointment as parish priest in Hilltown, where he sexually assaulted an altar boy over a five-year period. He died in 2002.

Last week one of the most important events in any diocesan calendar, the Chrism Mass, which normally takes place on Holy Thursday, was cancelled, sparking anger from some priests and laity. This is when the local bishop blesses the sacred oils that are used in sacraments such as baptism, confirmation and the anointing of the sick. But the Chrism Mass went ahead yesterday, celebrated by Bishop Boyce and diocesan priests.

The decision to impose an apostolic administrator means Rome has no confidence in a diocesan administrator, a local priest, who would normally be elected by senior local priests, the canons of the diocese, within eight days of the acceptance of a resignation and the formal declaration by the Pope that the See is vacant ('sede vacante' in Latin).

It also means that Canon Liam Stevenson, the vicar general who had taken over day-to-day running of the diocese at Dr McAreavey' s request, also steps down from that role. Canon Stevenson taught under Finnegan in St Colman's. His failure in recent weeks to answer questions from the media about what he knew or didn't know about Finnegan's abuse has dismayed many in the diocese, according to sources.

One senior cleric said: "Rome was likely advised that virtually all those senior priests in the diocese who taught under Finnegan in St Colman's are, in a sense, compromised by the revelations. We need a new broom to lead Dromore."

It is also thought the Vatican wanted to be seen to get a grip on Dromore well before the Pope's Dublin visit in August.

Bishop Boyce is considered a surprise, even controversial, choice. His critics point out that he was criticised for his handling of a clerical sex abuse case in Raphoe by the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in a report in 2011 (he apologised for his failings).

One retired priest, who worked in England for years and is now reportedly living in the Dromore diocese, told the Nolan Show that he was "disgusted" by the appointment. However, others say that Dr Boyce should be given a chance.

They point to "a safe pair of hands" who may reassure local priests and faithful that he will not do anything too radical, like recommending the dissolution of Dromore, one of the smallest dioceses in Ireland, and its transfer into the dioceses of Armagh and Down and Connor in roughly equal parts.

However, such a course cannot be ruled out and it may be significant that the Vatican did not explicitly say that Dr Boyce would hold the reins until a new bishop is appointed.

However, opponents of dissolution - and there will be many in the diocese - would see it as deeply unfair if the dissolution of the ancient diocese, which may happen some time in the future in any event, was forever linked to a clerical sex abuse scandal.

One of Bishop Boyce's tasks will be to ensure that the diocese fully co-operates with the PSNI investigation that was announced earlier this week and any possible subsequent independent inquiry.

Bishop Boyce's appointment will, for now at least, help fill the vacuum following Dr McAreavey's departure.

But the spotlight will remain on Dromore - and hardly for the best of reasons - for some time to come.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and award-winning former BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph

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