THE Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA), commissioned by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, has published its report into safeguarding within the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.
This review was commissioned by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool, as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese following the resignation of Bishop Robert Byrne.
The background to the review concerns the resignation of Bishop Robert Byrne in December 2022 in the wake of several issues, including rumours of sex parties and lockdown parties at Newcastle’s St Mary’s Cathedral.
The rumours of sex parties were later found to be untrue but serious issues were uncovered.
The CSSA went into these matters in detail, including the purchase of a new Bishop’s House in August 2020 and death by suicide of the Cathedral Dean, Canon Michael McCoy in April 2021
Canon Michael McCoy’s suicide is also focused on in the summary of the affair. Bishop Byrne replaced popular priest Father Dermott Donnelly — brother of TV star Declan Donnelly – with Canon McCoy.
Fr Donnelly had developed an impressive youth ministry in the diocese and had made the cathedral a place of hospitality for all, including the homeless.
But within six months Byrne had replaced him; Fr Donnelly died last year at the age of 55, following a short illness.
The CSSA’s report says that Bishop Byrne appointed Canon McCoy as the Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle, as well as conferring upon him the title of “Canon”. This was despite concerns raised by senior priests.
Various safeguarding concerns regarding Canon McCoy were reported to the Diocese over an extended period, according to the CSSA report.
These focused on his interactions with male teenagers which did not meet the criminal threshold but nevertheless prompted a variety of safeguarding responses.
In 2021, Northumbria Police initiated a formal investigation into historic sexual offending against a single young person under the age of 18.
Canon McCoy took his own life before any substantive police enquiries could be made. In May 2022, a coroner’s Inquest found that Canon McCoy had committed suicide in association with the criminal investigation.
The CSSA also investigated the situation of someone they name as ‘Father A’ — there are ongoing court proceedings associated with the priest at the time of publication of the report, so his name is anonymised, although it is widely published online.
The report says: “Father A was ordained a priest in 2005, having made his religious profession in 2003. Before his offending came to light, the Order of which he was a member knew of no concerns relating to Father A. Indeed, he was well regarded within the Order and on a national level with his role working in religious education for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“In August 2013, the Metropolitan Police executed a warrant at his priory in response to reports of indecent images of children being downloaded at that location.”
The details of this are gone into some detail in the report which is available on the Hexham and Newcastle diocesan website /diocesehn.org.uk
The report concluded that the diocese met the “minimum standards” of guidelines.
The auditors heavily criticised the tenure of Bishop Robert Byrne, in particular his promotion of Canon Michael McCoy to Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle and the bishop’s “inappropriate” friendship with a priest convicted of child sex offences.
The CSSA said the bishop’s “poor leadership” had “undermined” the safeguarding work of others “to the degree that people were put at potential risk”.
After probing into these matters and other concerns, the CSSA has made several observations and recommendations.
Points in the report are summarised as follows
— The review examined current safeguarding practices and the leadership, governance, and culture during Bishop Byrne’s tenure.
— The CSSA acknowledged the courage of those who shared their experiences during the review.
— The safeguarding audit found that current practice generally meets the minimum standards, but poor leadership undermined the efforts of trustees and professionals.
— The review highlighted serious failures of leadership related to the appointment of Canon Michael McCoy and Bishop Byrne’s association with a registered sex offender.
— Concerns were raised about Father McCoy’s behaviour, including inappropriate behaviour with young people and the Diocese’s failure to adequately monitor him.
— Bishop Byrne’s association with Father A was deemed inappropriate and posed a serious safeguarding risk.
— The CSSA made 12 recommendations for the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle and 10 national recommendations for safeguarding in the Catholic Church.
— The review concluded that leadership failures compromised safeguarding efforts and called for greater accountability and understanding of safeguarding expertise.
In June a new bishop was appointed for Hexham and Newcastle.
The Rt Rev. Stephen Wright became the Fifteenth Bishop of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. He is due to be installed next week, on July 14.
On hearing of his appointment he alluded to the controversial events in the diocese.
He said: “As your Bishop it is essential that I model best practice in safeguarding matters in my personal conduct and by following the national safeguarding policies.
“I welcome the diocesan safeguarding team and committee and the CSSA holding me to account in all the safeguarding work I am involved in.
“I will follow their expert informed advice. All clergy and other relevant appointments will be made by me after consultation with the safeguarding team and after any advice is received.
“I accept Pope Francis’ appointment to Hexham and Newcastle with joy, albeit a nervous joy at present.
“I look forward to being at home here with you soon and serving you. Please keep me in your prayers as you are in mine.”