Vatican investigates ‘lockdown sex party in British cathedral’

The Times/The Sunday Times [London, England]

January 22, 2023

By David Collins and Catherine Pepinster

The resignation of a bishop, and a child abuse allegation against the dean he appointed, prompted the Pope’s advisers to step in

The Roman Catholic church is investigating allegations of a lockdown “sex party” at a cathedral as part of an inquiry into a former bishop’s tenure.

In a highly unusual move, the Vatican has ordered an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Robert Byrne’s resignation as the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in December.

In a letter seen by The Sunday Times, the Archbishop of Liverpool, who is leading the investigation, said he has been asked by the Pope’s advisers to prepare “an in-depth report into the events leading up to Bishop Byrne’s resignation”.

For almost 1,000 years, the Catholic church has required priests to be celibate. There is no suggestion the bishop attended the alleged party, inside a property adjoining St Mary’s Cathedral, Newcastle, during the Covid lockdown, or was aware of it.

A diocese source said: “A number of complaints were made by individuals within the diocese after information came to light about a sex party taking place in the priests’ living quarters attached to Newcastle cathedral.”

A second church source said: “The cathedral had become a laughing stock.”

When the bishop stepped down, he told worshippers he had been reflecting: “What does the Lord require of me?”, and decided the role had become “too great a burden”.

A few months after he was made bishop in 2019, he surprised worshippers by replacing Father Dermott Donnelly, who was the older brother of TV presenter Declan Donnelly and was hugely popular, with another priest, Father Michael McCoy.

Churches were closed for much of the lockdowns, with only religious funerals allowed. But McCoy, who was the dean at the time, is said to have approached several worshippers within the diocese asking them if they would like to attend “a party” at the cathedral, according to a source close to the investigation.

McCoy, 57, took his own life in April 2021, just four days after finding out he was being investigated by Northumbria police’s child and adult protection department after a historical child sex abuse allegation was made against him.

A separate investigation, by the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) will focus on another figure, the convicted sex offender Father Tim Gardner, and his relationship with the diocese. In 2014, a judge described him as “depraved”.

Gardner, a Catholic friar and former religious education adviser, admitted at Southwark crown court in London to making hundreds and possessing thousands of indecent images of children.

He was caught with more than 500 pictures of children and more than 5,000 prohibited images downloaded on to his computer. Gardner, aged 42 at the time, who was teaching religious education at a Catholic school in north London, also pleaded guilty to ten counts of making indecent images of children and one count of possession of prohibited images. He was sentenced to eight months in prison, suspended for two years.

Gardner is alleged to have been offered the chance to stay at church-owned accommodation within the Newcastle diocese after his conviction. Senior figures at the diocese stepped in to block it, it is alleged. A letter from the Archbishop of Liverpool sent to priests in the diocese last week details how the CCSA’s safeguarding review will interview “clergy former and present, staff former and present, lay volunteers former and present, victims as appropriate”.

The inquiry would “focus on culture and governance arrangements around the safeguarding process”.

The letter added: “I have been asked by the Dicastery for Bishops to prepare an in-depth report into the events leading up to Bishop Byrne’s resignation.”

It is a rare intervention for the Dicastery for Bishops, the Vatican department in charge of nominating bishops and overseeing their performance around the world, which answers directly to the Pope.

The CSSA last week confirmed it had started an “unscheduled safeguarding audit” in the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.

Steve Ashley, the CSSA chief executive officer, said an “official independent unscheduled safeguarding review” began on Thursday. He added: “The scope of the investigatory work will cover any reported abuses, alleged abuses, safeguarding concerns and the culture of safeguarding in the diocese as a whole.” He said the CSSA’s work was “independent” and had “full autonomy over our findings”.

The former chief prosecutor for the northwest of England, Nazir Afzal, chairman of the CSSA, added: “There should be no doubt that we will leave no stone unturned when it comes to keeping people safe, and this includes investigating the safeguarding culture in Hexham and Newcastle.”

A Hexham and Newcastle diocese spokesman said the diocese had “previously invited” the CSSA to conduct a review “following the resignation of Bishop Byrne in December 2022”.

“Diocesan trustees have met and have had contact with the chief executive and representatives of the CSSA this week,” said the spokesman. “The review is now under way. 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 said it remained “fully committed” to safeguarding as an “integral part of the life and the ministry of the church”.

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “A charity should be a safe and trusted environment. As regulator, we are clear that keeping people safe should be a priority for all charities.

“We are aware of potential governance and safeguarding concerns at the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. We have opened a regulatory compliance case and are engaging with the trustees.”