St Mary’s Cathedral lockdown gathering claims to be reviewed

BBC [London, England]

January 22, 2023

An “unscheduled” safeguarding audit and review has been launched in the Catholic church following claims of lockdown gatherings in Newcastle.

The Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency will carry out the review into the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.

The BBC understands it involves claims from a whistleblower that men were regularly drinking on the St Mary’s Cathedral complex during lockdown 2021.

The inquiry is also expected to examine the suicide of Canon Michael McCoy.

Fr McCoy, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, killed himself in April 2021, days after police began an inquiry into a historical child sex abuse allegation made against him.

The diocese said it remains “fully committed” to safeguarding.

The Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) was set up to advise on and audit the work of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and is able to sanction clergy who do not meet standards.

The review, first reported by the Sunday Times, is backed by the Archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon, who oversees the Hexham and Newcastle diocese.

The diocese said it had previously invited the CSSA to conduct a review following the resignation of the former Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, the Right Reverend Robert Byrne, in December 2022.

He quit the role after three years saying it had become “too great a burden”, and had resigned “with great sorrow” and a “heavy heart”.

There is no suggestion that the retired bishop participated in any of the alleged lockdown gatherings.

On Thursday, the diocese said trustees had met and have had contact with the chief executive and representatives of the CSSA.

“They have discussed how the review, originally scheduled to happen in May 2023, will be undertaken and how the findings will be published,” a statement said.

“Prior to Bishop Byrne’s resignation in mid-December, trustees were working with the Charity Commission, following their self-referral to that organisation.

“The diocese will continue to work productively and swiftly with both organisations, learning where it needs to, not from rumours and misinformation, but from the facts and evidence provided.”

The Archbishop of Liverpool wrote a letter to clergy and staff confirming that safeguarding work began on 19 January.

“There has been much speculation and heightened interest from the press and others regarding some of the issues here,” he said.

“The diocese welcomes the CSSA’s external scrutiny.”

He added that he had been asked to prepare “an in-depth report into the events leading up to Bishop Byrne’s resignation”.

Stephen Ashley, CSSA chief executive, said: “We will publish our independent recommendations publicly, as soon as possible, once our team has completed its investigatory work and satisfied all lines of inquiry.”

Nazir Afzal, CSSA chair and the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England, added: “The review is fully supported by the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon and we appreciate his commitment to safeguarding.

“Naturally, we cannot yet speak to the detail of investigatory work which is ongoing, but there should be no doubt that we will leave no stone unturned to when it comes to keeping people safe, and this includes investigating the safeguarding culture in Hexham and Newcastle.”