The Catholic church is under pressure to defrock an Ulster priest accused of sexually abusing a schoolboy almost 30 years ago.
The north-west-born cleric is currently at the centre of a canonical investigation over the historical allegations dating back to 1991.
He was suspended from duties by his English diocese in April last year and is now back living in the same area of Northern Ireland where the alleged abuse took place.
However, the church-run probe has stalled, causing distress to the man who came forward with the claims to both police and senior Catholic figures. Denis Cairns (42) said his distress was compounded by revelations parishioners were continuing to publicly pray and raise funds for the man he claims abused him at just 13 years old. He first reported the sex abuse claims to RUC officers in 1997 at the age of 18.
It is believed the priest denied the allegations and after investigation a decision was made not to prosecute the clergyman. In 2014, after years of mental health struggles, dad-of-two Denis contacted the Diocese of Derry and disclosed what he claims happened to him.
Inquiries made between the church safeguarding officers revealed the UK diocese probed the claims in 2002, five years after Mr Cairn’s initial report to police.
The diocese said at that time it “supervised” and “monitored” the cleric for a two-year period. After numerous meetings with senior church figures in both Ireland and England, Mr Cairns was informed last year his alleged abuser was suspended from his parish role.
However, since then the church-run probe has come to a standstill. The lapse in progress has been de- scribed as “absolutely disgraceful” by Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson who wrote a scathing letter to Nottingham bishop Patrick McKinney.
Urging him to arrange for canon lawyers to immediately interview the cleric, the Foyle Assembly woman wrote:
It is scandals like these that gives people the impression that the Church has still not come to terms with its legacy of a trinity of denial, delay and death and is still preoccupied with preserving its own image. For many, that would seem to be a perversion of many Christian teachings that we all have learned about.
Speaking to the Sunday World this week, Mr Cairns said he would continue to put pressure on the church to take action against the man he said stole his childhood.
My argument and fight for justice is now, why has it taken Nottingham diocese so long to make this decision? I believe there are delay tactics being used here. Do they want this priest to die before this canonical investigation concludes so his reputation goes with him? It’s past the stage of a police action, that should have happened in 1997. If the church takes action against him, laicizes him and defrocks him, I will be happy.
In April last year, parishioners at a number of churches within the parish where the cleric was serving were read the following statement from Bishop McKinney.
Your parish priest has been absent from the parish for a long time due to his illness and we continue to pray for his recovery.
However, he is unable at present to act as your parish priest for another reason. An allegation has been recently made against him of historic sex abuse.Due to the serious nature of the allegation, I have issued a decree which suspends him from all public ministry until an investigation can be done.
It may seem cruel to begin this proceeding against someone who is seriously ill, but the church must and does take allegations of this nature very seriously.
Mr Cairns has since slammed the statement’s wording, saying: “The only cruel thing that has happened is that my abuser has happened is that my abuser has never been brought to justice."
The Derryman was just 13 when he claims the priest groomed and abused him while on leave from his Nottingham parish.
“We were in a house where I had been babysitting,” he told the Sunday World in an emotional interview.
He started to talk to me about sex education, then he abused me.
The abuse lasted for between 45 minutes to an hour, but in reality it has lasted a lifetime for me because it is with me every day.
We went on to church after it and he celebrated the mass, and that’s the backflash I have; him raising the host above his head that morning after he abused me.
It took me most of my life to get back to my faith after that, because every time I went to mass that image stayed in my head.
In the days after the alleged abuse, Mr Cairns said he was asked by the priest to keep quiet.
He said, Denis, please don’t say anything.
I did say to him I wouldn’t, who would believe me anyway? He’s a priest.
Then all ties broke as I got older. I was 18 years of age when I decided to speak out. What made me do that was, myself and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, were in a bar in Derry for a night out.
The priest walked in other people, but he also had a 13-year-old boy with him.
There is no proof whatsoever that this child with him was being abused or had been after that, but seeing him gave me the initiative to come forward and contact the RUC at that time.I was afraid he was abusing him or intended to.
That was in 1997 and I made a statement to police, but it wasn’t taken forward by the PPS.It was heartbreaking because the interviews had been so tough.
Mr Carins added:
In 2005 I took a severe mental health breakdown. It has just been downhill from there.
I was trying to juggle everything, my life, my job; I went heavy on the drink. I used it as a coping mechanism. In 2006 I started psychology treatment, and that lasted until 2009.
From speaking with psychologists and counsellors, I realise now I was running away from it. I was drinking every single night, trying to block it out.
I ended the psychology treatment in 2009, the hospital tried to offer me other jobs but nothing suited me. I wasn’t ready and I left.
It was around 2010 Mr Cairns decided to, for the first time, contact the Catholic church about his allegations.
One night, when I’d had a drink, I rang a church here in Derry.
A priest answered and I said, I am a victim of clergy abuse and I need help. I said I am only coming out of psychology treatment.
And I will never forget what he said to me; you are lucky you got psychology treatment.
And then he put down the phone.
Last year Bishop McKinney flew in to Northern Ireland to speak to Mr Cairns at the request of the Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown.
Mr Cairns said:
Mr Cairns said:
We met in Bishop Donal’s house and, after listening to my story, he told me he would begin a canonical investigation process.
Part of that process meant the priest was not allowed to carry out duties as parish priest nor contact parishioners in that capacity, but I discovered just that parishioners had been given an update on his health and that a collection taken up in his parish [at Christmas 2019] had been passed to him.
This caused me unimaginable anguish. I was distraught beyond belief because it comes after I repeatedly asked that a weekly notice in this priest parish newsletter which asks people to pray for him is stopped, but my request has repeatedly been ignored.
In response to a letter from Foyle MLA Martina Anderson, Bishop Patrick McKinney said: “This canonical process ongoing and I am determined to see it through. “It is my hope that there can eventually be some closure as you mention in your letter.”
Mr Cairns said:
Ten years ago I was able to finally go back inside church, I’ve been building my trust up since.
What happened to me when I was 13 has had a devastating effect on my life since. If I help just one victim by going public with my story, it will have been worthwhile.
When contacted by the Sunday World over Mr Cairns’ claims, Bishop Patrick McKinney blamed the “deteriorating health” of the priest involved for the delay in the church’s probe.
The bishop confirmed that the canonical investigation was now at its “final stage”.
Bishop McKinney said:
As a result of my meeting with Mr Cairns in Derry I instigated a preliminary investigation into the allegation he made.
Following this preliminary investigation into the allegation, a formal canonical process was begun in November 2019.
This process has been delayed by the deteriorating health of the priest against whom the allegation was made. His poor health has affected his ability to defend himself.
I am not personally involved in this canonical process, but I am informed that it is now reaching its final stage. I have always taken Mr Cairns’ allegation extremely seriously, and the diocese continues to make support available to him.
⏩ This article first featured in Sunday World.