Priest in house dispute with lover to take time away, says bishop

Fr Gabriel Rosbotham took Hugh Crawford to court over Co Donegal house they shared

A priest involved in a court case with his former lover over the ownership of a house in Co Donegal is to take time away from his diocese, the Bishop of Killala said this morning.

Dr John Fleming described the circumstances of the case as "a complete shock" to him,.

Dr Fleming issued a letter that was read out at Masses in the diocese this morning addressing the case of Fr Gabriel Rosbotham and Hugh Crawford.

Fr Rosbotham, a curate in Crossmolina,  Co Mayo, was awarded a 27 per cent share in the property, known as Rose Cottage, at Letterbarrow outside Mountcharles, by a judge in Donegal earlier this week.

He had taken Mr Crawford to court claiming a 50 per cent share in the house.

Fr Rosbotham and Mr Crawford met in the 1980s when they were both Franciscan brothers. Mr Crawford has since left the Franciscans and in 1997 Fr Rosbotham became a diocesan priest in Killala diocese, initially based at Ballina Co Mayo.

In his letter, Dr Fleming said the court case “came as a complete shock to me, to the priests of the diocese and I am sure to all of you”.

While he said the case has caused “deep distress” among the diocese and has left many people “hurt, distressed or disillusioned”, he praised Fr Rosotham for his parochial work and called for forgiveness.

“For the past 17 years Father Gabriel has ministered in this diocese, in your parishes, and he has received great appreciation for his pastoral care, his ability to relate to the young, his effectiveness as a preacher and, in particular, for his singing at Mass.”

The bishop said he met the cleric since the case ended on Friday.

“He has decided to take some time to himself, away from the diocese, to reflect on his life, on the commitments he made and on his ministry, as well as to think about the future,” Dr Fleming said.

“The Church and, in particular, the Christian community of which each of us is a member, is the place where we are joined to Christ, our Lord, and where we support one another in good times and in bad. It is also the place where we find forgiveness, hope, encouragement and healing.

“I hope and pray during these coming weeks and months that the Lord will be with all of us to renew our own faith, and the faith and trust of this community.”

Judge Keenan Johnson told Donegal Town Circuit Court on Friday he was calculating ownership of the house based on how much money he believed each party had contributed to the property.

He found Fr Rosbotham, a curate in Crossmolina, Co Mayo, had contributed €22,500 to the cottage, whilst Mr Crawford’s contribution amounted to just over €59,000.

The property is to be now divided, with Mr Crawford getting a 73 per cent share of any future sale.

The court had heard how Fr Rosbotham and Mr Crawford met in the 1980s when they were both Franciscan brothers.

Mr Crawford left his order and paid IR£25,000 for the house in 1994.

In 2000 and 2002 he had applied to add Fr Rosbotham’s name to the title deeds as by that stage the priest had also left the Franciscans - which has a vow of poverty and a ban on ownership of property - and had become a curate in Ballina.

Fr Rosbotham, in his evidence, said he had paid towards the mortgage and the upkeep of the house. When he left the Franciscans in 1997 to become a diocesan priest in Ballina, he would travel to stay with Mr Crawford “once or twice a week”.

He had visited more often when he had been a Franciscan in Rossnowlagh.

However Fr Rosbotham said their relationship ended because of what he claimed was “interference” from Mr Crawford’s family.

His lawyer Peter Nolan said his name couldn’t be added to the title deeds of the house in 1994 because of his then vow of poverty.

Mr Nolan produced letters written in 2000 in which Mr Crawford had said to the bank that he wished for Fr Rosbotham’s name to be added to the mortgage.

Two years later, in early 2002, the couple had fallen out and they had, alleged the priest, agreed to sell the house and split the money. But by the end of the year he had left.

Legal action began over ownership of the cottage in 2004.

In summing up, Judge Johnson said it was clear that both men still cared about eachother. “They are both clear very decent men who still have considerable regard for each other. They have dedicated their lives to helping others, Fr Rosbotham as a priest and Mr Crawford as a carer.

“I think it is unfortunate that this matter had to be aired in court and it certainly strikes me as a case that was tailor-made for mediation.

“Had the parties agreed to mediation, the matter could have been dealt with in private, with each of the parties retaining ownership of the ultimate resolution.”