A Catholic priest has called on the Church to put proper structures in place to protect priests who have been the subject of false allegations of child sexual abuse.
Fr Tim Hazelwood (57) from Castletownroche in Co Cork spent six years fighting to clear his name following a false accusation.
He told The Irish Times that he was going public about his own experience as he knew of other priests who had been similarly abandoned by the Church after they were falsely and maliciously accused of child sex abuse.
“Priests are sitting ducks for this sort of thing because there is no protection for us within the Church and we live now in a climate both in society and in the Church which presumes priests are guilty until they prove their innocence,” he said.
Fr Hazelwood said he accepts the majority of complaints made of abuse are genuine and should be fully investigated, but he has little time for those who make complaints anonymously and refuse to put their names to accusations as happened in his case.
“There is no doubt huge damage has been done by clerical child sex abuse and I believe a majority of complaints are genuine - people who put their names forward and go to the gardaí would not do so unless they had good grounds for it, but anonymous complainants are a different matter,” he said.
"Only for the fact my accuser chose to remain anonymous and refused to come forward, I would have been stepped down out of ministry and both my reputation and my life would have been destroyed," said Fr Hazelwood who is currently parish priest in Killeagh in the Diocese of Cloyne.
Although the Catholic Church’s watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children advised no action should be taken against Fr Hazelwood because the accuser was anonymous, the diocese did inform the Garda and the HSE about the complaint, although neither ever questioned him.
Fr Hazelwood was never given any details about his accuser, who had contacted the Diocese of Cloyne Child Protection Officer, but he was able to identify the man and when his accuser began harassing him with phonecalls and letters, he made a formal complaint to the Garda.
Gardaí questioned the man and sent a file to the DPP but the DPP opted not to direct a charge of harassment as it felt there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.
Fr Hazelwood then raised the matter with colleagues in the Association of Catholic Priests.
He was advised by solicitor, Robert Dore, who acted for Fr Kevin Reynolds, the Irish priest falsely accused in an RTÉ television documentary, Mission to Prey of raping a Kenyan teenage, to initiate High Court proceedings against his accuser.
“We went to the High Court and I received a detailed signed retraction, an admission that lies were told and a signed apology. My legal fees were paid and a generous donation was paid to be my nominated charity but I got little or no support from the Church in the fight to clear my name.”
According to Fr Hazelwood, the most difficult aspect of his ordeal was telling his siblings.
Only two weeks ago, once matters were finalised, did he tell his 87-year-old mother. “That was the most upsetting experience but I was able to tell her it was sorted and I was okay.”
While Fr Hazelwood is grateful to the Bishop of Cloyne, Dr William Crean for standing by him and appointing him a parish priest in the middle of his ordeal, he believes that that the Catholic Church "cut me loose, hung me out to dry and disowned me".
And he believes now that it is time for priests in Ireland to establish a national body which will lobby the bishops to carry out a review of safeguarding structures so that accused priests are ensured natural justice, with a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“We have rightly and properly protocols in place for the protection of children, but there are no standardised procedures in place with regard to priests who have been accused of abuse. It comes down to each diocese and the individual bishop.
“I was lucky in the sense that because my accuser chose to remain anonymous, I wasn’t stepped down out of ministry but that can vary from diocese to diocese and somebody could be stepped down in another diocese on foot of an anonymous complaint which is wrong.
“I struggled between my desire to clear my name and the expectation by others that I would lie low and say nothing but I’ve decided to go public so that other false accusers know that they won’t get away with malicious complaints and so that other priests in the same situation know there is hope.”