Exclusive: Church probes how priest was ordained after abuse sacking

St Williams School, Market Weighton
St Williams School, Market Weighton
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THE Roman Catholic church is to launch an inquiry into how it dealt with allegations surrounding a priest who was ordained despite being previously sacked for sexually abusing boys at a Yorkshire children’s home.

Last year the Yorkshire Post revealed how Father Joseph O’Brien was able to become a priest despite his dismissal from the St William’s home in Market Weighton and claims that further allegations surfaced after he joined the clergy.

He died in 2010 without Humberside Police or the regional Catholic diocese investigating his activities, despite both being made aware of his history.

The National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) has now set up an investigation into how the Middlesbrough Diocese responded when it knew there were sexual abuse allegations against one of its priests.

But it is understood the inquiry will focus on what the diocese knew and did from the 1990s onwards – rather than focusing on how he was able to become a priest in the first place.

The diocese has previously denied knowing of Father O’Brien’s sacking in 1965 when accepting his application to train as a priest seven years later, and subsequently ordaining him in 1975. His career included a 15-year spell at All Saints in Thirsk, from where he retired in 1998.

Although the diocese was responsible for the management of St William’s, it was run by a Catholic lay order, called the De La Salle Brotherhood. Father O’Brien was a member of the brotherhood when he was sacked and the diocese has previously said De La Salle failed to mention the dismissal when providing a reference for his application to become a priest in 1972.

In turn, De La Salle pointed out that the diocese already held a record of Father O’Brien’s sacking because it was formally reported, at the time, to the Middlesbrough Diocesan Rescue Society, which had overall responsibility for the home.

The NCSC, set up in 2008 in response to concerns surrounding abuse within the Catholic church, believes it is unlikely to glean any more information about how Father O’Brien was able to become a priest.

So instead it will look what the diocese did over the last two decades, including recorded evidence that the former Bishop of Middlesbrough received correspondence specifically highlighting Father O’Brien’s dismissal and separate allegations that a dossier including more recent abuse during his clerical career was compiled by another priest in the diocese.

Existence of a dossier has been strenuously denied by the diocese.

In 2002, a former member of staff at St William’s, Noel Hartnett, told Humberside Police in a witness statement that a Catholic priest in the diocese had liaised with him in the early 1990s over a dossier he was putting together about allegations said to involve Father O’Brien.

Mr Hartnett, who lives in Market Weighton, has said he clearly recollects the priest talking to him about a dossier. Mr Hartnett said he informed the priest about Father O’Brien’s sacking – an event he witnessed first hand – and expected the information to form part of a dossier compiled for a senior member of the Catholic church, who has since retired.

The Yorkshire Post has obtained correspondence between another former member of staff at St William’s and the senior church official, in 2004 and 2005. In that correspondence, the existence of a dossier was denied. The priest, now retired, also denies its existence.

The NCSC confirmed the inquiry and in a statement added: “An independent person, drawn from a panel of specialists, will investigate what information was known to the diocese and by whom, when that information was known and whether this was managed in line with the Church’s National Safeguarding Procedures.”

Although the NCSC has to be technically invited in by a diocese to carry out an inquiry, the move actually follows an initial recommendation from the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service which reports to NCSC.

A spokesman for the diocese said: “Following recent comment in the local Press the Bishop of Middlesbrough has invited the NCSC to review the processes followed by the diocese in relation to allegations made about a priest now deceased. In the light of this review it would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this time.”