Fr Malachy Finnegan: A child abuser and his victims

By Patsy Mcgarry
Irish Times
March 17, 2018

Father Malachy Finnegan: when he was at Stroud treatment centre for sex offenders he was parish priest at Clonduff/Hilltown near Newry and president of the local GAA club, where he looked after the juvenile football teams

During therapy sessions for sex offenders, Finnegan insisted: ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’

A former Catholic priest remembers Fr Malachy Finnegan when he was at the Stroud treatment centre for sex offenders in Gloucestershire, England. It was 1995, and the former priest had himself been sent there because he was gay and was considered a sex addict by church authorities.

He recalls Finnegan during group therapy sessions when everyone was expected to be open and honest about their activities as part of their treatment “He never opened his mouth for the four months he was there [at the sessions] except to say, with resolute stubbornness, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’.”

If “he had admitted anything he would never have returned to ministry”, the former priest said. “Everything he would have said and done would have been reported back [to his bishop].”

Away from the therapy sessions he and Finnegan became friendly. It was how the former priest discovered Finnegan has spent some time in the South at a parish in Co Laois, and how he had claimed that he and the then bishop of Dromore diocese Francis Brooks had been classmates.

However, Bishop Brooks had been ordained a priest in 1949, four years before Finnegan.

Finnegan had been sent to Stroud because of allegations that he had sexually abused a minor. In 1994, the Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey, then professor of canon law at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, had been informed of this by Bishop Brooks, and was asked to help the abused boy pastorally.

As Bishop McAreavey (who succeeded Bishop Brooks in 1999) put it in a statement last month,“the first allegation against Malachy Finnegan came to light in 1994, some seven years after he left St Colman’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.”

The first time any allegations were reported to the police by church authorities was in 2006. To date 12 formal allegations have been made against Finnegan.

A BBC Spotlight programme last month raised serious questions about how the diocese of Dromore, which includes parishes in counties Antrim and Armagh but covers much of Co Down, handled child sex abuse allegations against Finnegan. The programme included interviews with three men abused by Finnegan as children.

Physical abuse

As more men came forward alleging sexual and physical abuse by the priest, Bishop McAreavey announced his resignation earlier this month, and former president Mary McAleese called for an independent inquiry into physical and sexual abuse at St Colman’s College, Newry, Co Down, where Finnegan had been president until 1987.

On RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Sean O’Rourke programme last Monday, McAleese became upset as she recalled how her youngest brother, Clement Leneghan (49), had been “seriously, physically, sadistically” abused by Finnegan while a pupil at St Colman’s in the 1980s. McAleese said there were many people who knew what was going on and could have done something, but did not do so.

In a letter to the Belfast Telegraph some weeks ago, Leneghan wrote: “Throughout my seven years as a pupil at St Colman’s in the 1980s, something rotten was allowed to fester at the core of that school – I saw it every day.

“Thankfully I never experienced sexual abuse there – and I feel intense sadness for those who did – but I was one of many who suffered other forms of abuse, which Finnegan knew about and allowed to flourish.”

A second former pupil, “Donal”, told The Irish Times this week of a vicious beating by Finnegan when he was in fourth year at the school, after which the priest “started asking sexual questions”.

“ ‘Do you masturbate?’ he asked me.” Then he asked Donal, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Do you have sex with her?” Donal said no. “You’re a liar,” the priest responded.

After Donal began crying, he was sent back to his class. On the way out Finnegan patted him on the bottom.

Juvenile football teams

When he was in Stroud Finnegan was parish priest at Clonduff/Hilltown near Newry, and president of the local GAA club, where he looked after the juvenile football teams. He had held both roles since 1988.

It was while there in 1990 that Finnegan began raping Sean Falloon at the age of 10, generally in the bedroom of the parochial house, known as Clonduff House, after Mass on Sundays. Mr Falloon spoke about this to the BBC recently.

When Finnegan was sent secretly to Stroud, all of Ireland was acutely alert to allegations of child sex abuse involving priests. In 1994, Fr Brendan Smyth was jailed in Belfast following over four decades of child sex abuse and his conviction for the sexual abuse of four members of one family in that city.

Later that year, in November 1994, the Republic’s government fell amid allegations about a delay in processing an RUC request for the extradition of Smyth from the Republic to face trial in Belfast.

It was in this climate that Finnegan was sent secretly by Bishop Brooks to Stroud in England for treatment, and that the then Fr McAreavey was asked to help one of Finnegan’s abuse victims.

It was also the climate in which Finnegan was allowed to return to his Clonduff parish in Dromore diocese that summer of 1995, and to its GAA club. Within two days of his return he was raping Falloon again in the parochial house.

Speaking to The Irish Times this week, the former priest who attended Stroud over the period Finnegan was there said he was very surprised Finnegan was allowed leave the centre without completing the seven-month course for sex offenders and which cost £30,000, particularly in the context of Finnegan’s refusal to actively and honestly take part in the therapy sessions.


Finnegan was himself from Newry. Ordained in Maynooth by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, in June 1953, he served briefly in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin at Mountmellick, Co Laois, from 1953 to 1956. No allegations of abuse have arisen from his three years there.

He returned to Dromore diocese, and had appointments at Warrenpoint, Co Down, from 1956 to 1959, at Derrymacash from 1959 to 1967, and began at St Colman’s College in 1967. He was there until 1971, and then served for a two-year period in Newry from 1971 to 1973.

St Colman’s is one of the leading Catholic boys’ secondary schools in Northern Ireland. Opened as the diocesan college (junior seminary) for Dromore in 1823, it was set up primarily as a boarding school, with some day pupils, to educate and recruit boys for the Catholic priesthood. This was a pattern repeated in almost every Irish Catholic diocese during the early 19th century.

St Colman’s has a long tradition of success at Gaelic football, having won the colleges’ all-Ireland final eight times. GAA founder Michael Cusack was a past pupil.

Other noteworthy past pupils include former IRA chief-of-staff, Fianna Fáil founder and tánaiste Frank Aiken; former chief justice of Northern Ireland and member of the UK supreme court Lord (Brian) Kerr; former UK ambassador to the Holy See (until 2011) and first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation Francis Campbell; former Bishop of Cloyne John Magee; the late IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh; actors John Lynch, Michael Legge, and Kevin Traynor.

College staff

In the autumn of 1973, Finnegan returned to the staff at St Colman’s, and became college president in January 1976, succeeding Dr Brooks who was ordained Bishop of Dromore that same January. Finnegan remained as president at St Colman’s until 1987.

Among his colleagues on the college staff were Fr McAreavey from 1978 to 1979, and Canon Liam Stevenson, whom Bishop McAreavey appointed this month as administrator of Dromore diocese until a new bishop takes over there.

Canon Stevenson was also on the staff at St Colman’s from 1973, becoming president in 1994, a position he held until 2000, when he was appointed parish priest at Seapatrick in Banbridge, Co Down, Bishop McAreavey’s home town.

At a Mass in September 1999, Dr McAreavey was ordained Bishop of Dromore at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Newry. The main celebrant was then Catholic primate Archbishop Sean Brady, with Bishop Brooks and Bishop of Cloyne John Magee, a past pupil of St Colman’s, assisting.

Bishop Magee resigned as Bishop of Cloyne in 2010, and was severely criticised in the 2011 Cloyne report for his handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations there.

Archbishop, later Cardinal Sean Brady was criticised in the January 2017 Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry report for having “effectively silenced” a 14-year-old boy in 1975 who had been sexually abused by Smyth.

Parish priest

In September 2000, Bishop Brooks, Finnegan, and Canon Stevenson took part in a concelebrated Mass at St Teresa’s Church in Banbridge to mark Canon Stevenson’s appointment there as parish priest.

Weeks later in 2000, Bishop McAreavey took part in another concelebrated Mass with Finnegan, this time at Corduff parish, where Finnegan has been parish priest, to mark the 150th anniversary of the church there. Church authorities in Dromore were already well aware then of clerical child sex abuse allegations against Finnegan, though none had been reported to police or any civil authorities.

At the end of his 11½-year tenure as president at St Colman’s, Finnegan served for a short period as parish priest of Dromore – from August 1987 until January 1988 – before being transferred to Clonduff as parish priest on January 17th, 1988.

He retired in September 1995, and died in Newry on January 15th, 2002. Following a funeral Mass celebrated by Bishop McAreavey, he was buried at Warrenpoint, Co Down.

The size of Dromore diocese, one of the smallest Catholic dioceses in Ireland with just 23 parishes, was found to present “significant challenges in responding to allegations of abuse, which are not evident in larger dioceses”, according to a 2011 review of child safeguarding there by the Catholic Church watchdog the National Board for Safeguarding Children.

“The smallness of the diocese and the ensuing close personal relationships created significant challenges for those working in the safeguarding structure, including the bishop, when dealing with allegations,” it said.

Lay principal

St Colman’s now has its first lay principal, Cormac McKinney, and 900 pupils.

Last month in a statement St Colman’s board of governors, chaired by Bishop of Dromore Dr McAreavey, announced that a claim against former president Finnegan had been settled, and it condemned “in the strongest possible terms the physical, sexual and emotional abuse” inflicted by him on pupils at the college while he was there. It is understood the settlement amount is in six figures.

The statement continued that “when informed in October 2017, that a case had been settled by the diocese of Dromore, the board of governors instructed that Malachy Finnegan’s image be removed from photographs which were on display in the college”.

It advised anyone abused by Finnegan to report it to the police.


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