Catholic Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey has apologised for saying the funeral Mass in 2002 for abuser priest Fr Malachy Finnegan, a former president of St Colman's College in Newry, Co Down.
The board of governors at St Colman’s have ordered that Fr Finnegan’s image be removed from all photographs on display in the college. It followed a settlement made by the diocese of Dromore last October in a case involving the priest.
Dromore diocese includes parishes in Antrim and Armagh - but mainly those in Down.
Fr Finnegan served at St Colman’s from 1967 to 1971 and was a teacher from 1973 to 1976. He was president of the college from 1976 to 1987.
Between 1994 and 2016, 12 allegations of abuse were made against him.
As Bishop McAreavey noted in his statement: “The first allegation against Malachy Finnegan came to light in 1994 some seven years after he left StColman’s College. The second allegation came in 1998 and was not related to his tenure at St Colman’s. No further allegations emerged until after his death in January 2002.”
It in understood the BBC Spotlight team has been investigating allegations against Fr Finnegan over recent months and how these have been handled by Catholic Church authorities.
In his statement Bishop McAreavey said that “since becoming Bishop in 1999 everything I have learned about the abuse of victims I have learned from victims. It is their testimonies and their stories, which have impacted most on me.
“It is through their perspective that I realised that my decision to say the funeral Mass of Malachy Finnegan in 2002 was the wrong one. In November 2002 a victim told me how hurt he was by this, I realised that I had made an error of judgement. It is something I regret and will not repeat.
“The actions of Malachy Finnegan were “abhorrent, inexcusable and indefensible,” he said.
“He has caused hurt, which in some cases may never be healed. Malachy Finnegan has devastated families, including his own, and his former colleagues also feel betrayed by his behaviour. I apologise unreservedly to the victims and their families for his actions.
“We speak about abuse cases as being historical but we must never lose sight of the reality that the legacy of abuse lives on for victims and for them it is all too present. I ask you to pray for them and their families,” the statement said.
Bishop McAreavey recalled how in 2011 he invited the church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) to undertake an audit of Dromore’s child protection practices. “And specifically I asked them to examine the cases involving Malachy Finnegan,” he said.
He recalled how the NBSC report found that in the past, where Dromore was concerned, “in some instances the practice followed placed too much emphasis on maintaining the name of the accused priest rather than ensuring the safety of children”.
Bishop McAreavey added: “They further commented that they were satisfied that I as Bishop had reported all allegations in Dromore since 1999 and ‘that I had taken an active personal interest in supporting victims’.”
In their statement the board of governors at St Colman’s College condemned “in the strongest possible terms the physical, sexual and emotional abuse inflicted by Malachy Finnegan when he was in the employment of the College over 30 years ago.”
They were “devastated that any pupil who was entrusted to the care of St Colman’s College should ever have suffered abuse.”
They said “the abuse that Malachy Finnegan inflicted is the antithesis of all that the College stands for in terms of its aims, objectives, ethos and culture and it is a matter of absolute regret and sorrow that such behaviour should ever have occurred in St Colman’s College.”
Dromore and Down & Connor are the only two of the 26 Catholic dioceses in Ireland to be wholly within Northern Ireland.