© Fr Paddy McCafferty

 “I said, ‘If you have covered up, get out. Resign. You are not fit to lead the People of God’. How one priest’s suffering and courage helped to bring change

Seventeen years ago today, Fr Paddy McCafferty’s made a powerful call to Irish bishops on the cover-up sexual abuse of children. This Christmas he shared these memories to help others similarly suffering, to give them hope to find some healing.


For me personally, the weekend of December 13th to 15th in 2002, was momentous.

It set in motion a series of events that brought to a head years of suffering since early childhood. Ever since mid-December, 2002, at this time of year, I tend to vividly recall the weekend that, in many ways, altered the course of my life.

It is in the public domain, for quite some time now, that I was a victim of child abuse perpetrated by a babysitter when I was four- five years old. Later, as a young adult, I fell prey to an abuser in the priesthood – James Donaghy.

Since early childhood, I was coping with the trauma of abuse and how it impacts upon one’s entire life. From an early age, the world was a dark and terrifying place.

I lived on my nerves and suffered depression and acute anxiety, without really having a name for those experiences, back then, as a child.

Added to this already bleak scenario was the backdrop of “The Troubles” and the daily atmosphere of terror, threat, violence and murder, upheaval and chaos in my native city of Belfast.

Given the intrusion of an abuser in my life at a tender age, I felt endangered constantly and was always seeking “safety”. But nowhere really was “safe”.

The only sense of safety and security, for me as a child, was “in God”. I make no apologies for saying that I “took refuge” in Him from a young age. I was a very devout child. I was an altar boy.

Although later, I would meet an abusive priest, the priests I knew in childhood were true and faithful priests of God. They were men of prayer. They were true pastors. They were all that a priest is called to be by the Lord. And they inspired me to desire to serve God as they did.

When I had the misfortune, as a young seminarian in the first two years of my studies, to come to the attention of a sexual predator, James Donaghy, who was then a young priest of the diocese of Down and Connor, it compounded very severely the trauma of my early childhood.

Nevertheless, because I already knew true and holy priests, I was able to see Donaghy for what he was – to understand that his behaviour was the activity of someone who had departed, from what God calls His priests to be, for His people.

As a young seminary student, in my late teens and early twenties, I had the physical appearance of a boy aged about 14. I was small and slight. The abuse perpetrated by James Donaghy was forceful and, although I resisted as best I could, I could not match his greater physical strength.

So, I was overpowered by this man and the effects upon me were truly horrendous. During the abuse, as had happened when I was a small child, I would have “out of the body” experiences. I would be an onlooker, from above, to what was happening to me “on the ground”.

As a young child being abused by the babysitter, I remember “stepping out” of myself and standing beside myself, watching what the female babysitter was doing.

The same thing happened later with Donaghy – except it was as if I was looking down from above on myself. I have a vivid image, from one horrific episode, of Donaghy on top of me, his weight crushing me, me fighting for air and almost suffocating; but, even though I could see myself gasping for breath, it was as if it was happening to someone else who only looked like me.

I now know that this is how people survive severely traumatic episodes such as car crashes, being shot, caught up in explosions. The mind shuts down. I think, to protect your sanity, your mind checks out of your body. You “zone out”.

For years and years, I had lived with what I now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Things were going from bad to worse but somehow I always managed to keep going. Until the weekend of December 13th to December 15th, 2002.

On Friday December 13th, 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, was forced to resign over his handling of complaints of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the archdiocese of Boston. He had knowingly covered up abuse by clergy and had moved known abusers from parish to parish so that they were able abuse many more children and young people.

For me, Law’s resignation was cataclysmic. It brought my own years of suffering to a head. Since the mid 90s, as a priest, I had been publicly critical of the Church’s response to the victims of clerical sexual abuse. I was writing articles and letters in the Catholic and secular press, strongly criticising the Church leadership for lack of compassion and Christ-like outreach, to those wounded by abusing clergy. As a result, I experienced hostility and being treated as a pariah by many of my fellow clergy.

I was speaking out because I myself knew the pain and suffering caused when the abuser is a cleric; although at that stage I had not disclosed this publicly. Only a few very close friends knew. My family didn’t even know anything about the abuse – by either the babysitter or Donaghy.

On Friday December 13th, Cardinal Law resigned. On the RTÉ Six One News that evening, an Irish survivor, Marie Collins, called for the resignation of the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell.

In October 2002, the RTÉ current affairs program, Primetime, had broadcast “Cardinal Secrets”, which accused Cardinal Connell of similar cover up of abuse for which Cardinal Law was having to resign. Marie said that Cardinal Connell, like Cardinal Law, should also resign.

On Friday December 13th, 2002, after watching the RTÉ news, I drove out to Sprucefield Shopping Centre, to buy some Christmas lights. I was in Homebase looking for the lights and part of the store was turned into an entire Christmas display, where all the trees and decorations were easily found.

There was a small child there, aged about four or five years old. His parents were with him and they were browsing as he stood in the middle of the Christmas display, with an expression of utter wonder and awe on his face.

Suddenly, I saw myself as I was at his age. I almost collapsed in the store. I saw the small child and I saw myself at his age. I thought to myself, looking at the little boy’s pure wonder and innocent awe, how terrible that someone would come into his life and switch off all the lights, as someone had done with me, when I was his age.

That was the end for me that would later prove to be a beginning; but all I could see was the end at that point. I was got out of Homebase as quick as I could run to my car and sobbed for ages. I knew that I was broken and couldn’t go on any further.

When I had gathered myself and calmed down, I went home. I sat down and wrote a lengthy article/letter to the Irish News in which, basically, I said that all bishops, whoever they were, wherever they were, should take a leaf out of Cardinal Bernard Law’s book and “get out”. I said, “if you have covered up, get out. Resign. You are not fit to lead the People of God”. I sent it off by email to the Irish News around Midnight.

On the evening of Sunday December 15th, I came home from a Carol Service in Clonard Monastery about 10:30pm and there was a message on the parish answering machine from an Irish News journalist asking me to call him back which I did.

The journalist told me they were carrying my call for resignations in the paper next morning but he wanted to ask me a question: in my opinion should Cardinal Connell in Dublin resign? With a sensation in heart that all hell was going to break loose – but also knowing that I had to call it as I saw it – I replied “yes. He should resign”.

The next morning, indeed, Monday December 16th, 2002, all hell began to break loose around 6:00am. A call from the BBC Radio Ulster “Good Morning Ulster” programme was first. I agreed to give an interview to Wendy Austin. Those who heard told me I was very emotional. I was having a nervous breakdown in reality.

That morning, there were constant calls from UTV, the BBC, RTÉ and various other media outlets. It was headline news – “Priest Calls On Cardinal Connell To Resign”. But I was unfit to take any more calls. I was completely spent.

My best friend who lives down south told me to get on the train and he and another very good friend would meet me in Dublin at Connolly Station. I was too weak to drive myself. I was in a state of collapse. It was Monday December 16th. 17 years ago tomorrow.

I stayed with my friends for a few days to draw my breath; but I was very conscious that Christmas was just days away and I was determined to go back to my parish for Christmas. I went back home on Friday December 20th. I got through Christmas. I received a lot of support from parishioners and a mailbag of letters commending the stand I had taken.

However, I knew I had reached a point of no return in terms of my own woundedness and trauma – that I had to do something to address the agony I had been in for years.

In early January, 2003, it was the 2nd or 3rd, I went to my doctor and he told me that I needed rest, that he was putting me on sick leave for three months, to be reviewed at the end of three months.

He was previously aware of my story of abuse because of my depression and anxiety. Dr Gerry Lundy, now retired, was immensely kind and supportive. Gerry told me I was exhausted. I reluctantly agreed to take some time off. I also knew I needed to seek help with the effects of the abuse by the babysitter and by James Donaghy.

Back in 1999 and again in 2001, I had reported what had happened to me at the hands of James Donaghy to the diocese of Down and Connor. I did so because I saw he was spending a lot of time with another young person and I was desperately worried about the safety of that young person.

I don’t wish to go into it all here but, suffice it to say, that no action was taken. I was lied to and misled. The authorities in the diocese back then are not those in position now, I must add. Neither were there in place the strict Safeguarding guidelines and procedures that are now in force in every diocese.

A good friend, a missionary priest, recommended to me a therapist in Massachusetts, USA. I made contact with the therapist and he agreed that he could help me. The diocese of Down and Connor would fund the therapy as I would never have had the resources to do so personally.

I also made sure – and it worked out perfectly – that I would be able to reside in a parish in Massachusetts and be of assistance – that I would be able to celebrate daily and Sunday Mass. That was non negotiable. Daily Mass sustained me on the worst and darkest days. Even if I was on the ground, I managed to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every single day because, at the Altar, I had some inkling of the Lord’s arms, reaching down from His Cross, holding me up.

I lived in St Anne’s Parish, North Oxford, MA, for six and a half months with a wonderful priest and his community. I was effectively the assistant pastor for the time I spent there. It was an amazing time and the therapist was absolutely superb. He was a kind, wise and gentle friend. He helped me to process the complete craziness that had befallen me since early childhood. I will be forever grateful for the blessings I received in North Oxford, MA.

I returned home at the end of September 2003. Back to the craziness. The abuser, James Donaghy, was still ministering as a Parish Priest in the diocese – despite my very serious complaints against him – and, as I later found out, other complaints that were nothing to do with me.

It was not until March 2004 that James Donaghy stepped aside from priestly ministry to be investigated for a complaint separate from the one I had made. In April 2006, the Public Prosecution Service decided not to pursue the case due to “insufficient evidence to secure a conviction”. Donaghy, however, did not return to ministry.

On December 9th, 2009, I was contacted by a detective to ask me if I had ever “had trouble” from Fr James Donaghy? Another person had come forward and gone to the police. I spent almost three hours on the phone with the detective that night telling him the entire story as it had affected me. He asked me did I want to press charges? On account of there being now others who had come forward, I decided the time had come to take my stand with those other victims and make James Donaghy accountable for the crimes he had committed.

Donaghy was arrested at the end of January 2010 and charged with sexual offences against myself and two others. He denied the allegations.

On November 14th, 2011, his trial began in Belfast.

On December 14th, 2011 – exactly 9 years since that cathartic weekend of December 13th to 15th, 2002, the jury found him guilty of his crimes against myself and two others.

On February 10th, 2012, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The following year, he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a seven year old boy in Confession. He was given a further two years to run concurrently with the sentence he was already serving.

In February 2015, Pope Francis dismissed Donaghy from the clerical state.

Ultimately, the weekend of December 13th to 15th, 2002, although I was brought to breaking point, it was ultimately to lead to healing and recovery, to the place of strength I have come to today, by the Grace of God. It is in looking back along the path traveled that we see clearly the Hand of God, His intervention and His saving help, every step of the road. And so it shall be in the future.

“And in the wilderness (as you yourselves saw), the Lord your God carried you, like a man who is carrying his little son, along all the way that you walked, until you arrived at this place” (Deuteronomy 1:31).



Fr Paddy McCafferty is parish priest of Corpus Christi Church in west Belfast

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