by Sarah Mac Donald
An Irish priest falsely accused of sexual abuse calls for the Church to rethink the way it treats clergy who are placed under investigation
The Church “cut me loose, hung me out to dry, and disowned me,” says Fr Tim Hazelwood, who has been a Catholic priest for 34 years. He has recently won a six-year struggle to clear his name after being falsely accused of sexual abuse. He is deeply concerned at the way in which the Church handled his case, and he warns that the Irish hierarchy must rethink its treatment of accused priests and its policy on anonymous accusations.
Fr Hazelwood says there is a climate in both church and society which presumes priests are guilty unless they prove their innocence. The 57-year-old parish priest of Killeagh in the Cloyne diocese, a qualified psychotherapist, believes it is time for priests in Ireland to establish a national body which will lobby the bishops and the current safeguarding structures on their behalf to ensure that natural justice is not undermined.
He took a legal action to the High Court in Dublin against the man who had anonymously accused him of abuse. “I received a detailed signed retraction, an admission that lies were told and a signed apology. My legal fees were paid and a generous donation was paid to my nominated charity.”
FR Hazelwood says that while he has no understanding of the motives of his accuser, his concern is mainly about the way he was treated by the Church in the aftermath of the accusations.
Last week, at a meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests with representatives of the Irish hierarchy, he outlined his concerns to four bishops. While he pays tribute to Bishop William Crean of Cloyne, who stood by him and appointed him as a parish priest three years ago, others in the institutional church, he says, treated him shabbily. “I struggled between my desire to clear my name and the expectation to lie low and to say nothing, hoping that it will go away.”
Fr Hazelwood was never removed from ministry because his accuser remained anonymous. However, had the man come forward, the priest believes his reputation and life would have been “destroyed”, as he would have been stood down from ministry. He would also probably have been named in the media, even ahead of any investigation. “And as a priest, if you don’t have your good name – you’re finished.”
According to Fr Hazelwood, although the accusation was made anonymously and in spite of the fact that the National Board for Safeguarding Children advised that no action should be taken, his diocese nevertheless informed the police and the Health Board, giving them his name.
Quoting the Code of Canon Law, the priest pointed out that “Canon 1717 says, ‘Care is to be taken that this investigation does not call into question anyone’s good name.’ My right to my good name and reputation was clearly disregarded.”
Marie Collins, herself a survivor of clerical abuse and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaking in a personal capacity, told me: “I don’t believe any anonymous accusation should go forward. False allegations only undermine genuine survivors and victims. It is important that the procedures to investigate allegations move as quickly as possible. Justice works both ways.”
“There is no doubt that huge damage has been done by clerical sex abuse,” says Fr Hazelwood. And although he believes that the majority of complaints of abuse are genuine, echoing Marie Collins, he believes that natural justice should apply to both the accused and accuser.
He also raises a number of pertinent questions. One is whether or not a priest who has been accused of abuse has the right to view his own file. “Does he have a right to know that he has been accused, before his name is filed and passed on to authorities? What is the Church’s policy on anonymous complaints? What support system is in place for priests wrongly accused and who choose to fight for their good name?”
Robert Dore, the solicitor who acted on behalf of Kevin Reynolds, the Irish priest falsely accused in an RTÉ television documentary, Mission to Prey, of raping a Kenyan teenager and fathering a child, also acted for Fr Hazelwood.
Dore describes the Church’s protocols on anonymous allegations as “wrong” and “wholly inappropriate”.
“I’ve acted for several priests against whom utterly false allegations have been made,” he says. “There have been police investigations into them and no steps have been taken in relation to a prosecution – yet these priests remain in limbo, they are out of ministry pending some kind of canonical inquiry which takes forever. It is absolutely [the] case that you are guilty until you prove your innocence.”
Another issue of concern to Fr Hazelwood relates to the pastoral care of priests accused of abuse. “I think the Church has fallen down completely in its pastoral approach to priests that have been accused. Priests feel abandoned. At no stage during any of this did anyone ring me to see how I was. Nobody asked how I was in my spiritual life or how I was financially.”
He has been contacted by a number of priests, including one in Sligo and another in Armagh, who have had similar experiences of being accused of abuse, feeling abandoned by the Church and finally being shown to have been innocent. So isolated have they felt that some priests have even found it difficult to challenge an untrue allegation. “I spoke to one man who was going to agree that something had happened – even though it hadn’t – because his religious order felt that it would be sorted out if he did.”
Being “fobbed off”, as he puts it, by safeguarding officers and by the National Board when he sought access to his file led Fr Hazelwood to feel that “efforts were made to hinder me from clearing my name”. Disowned and abandoned, “I was left feeling very alone”, he says. “I had to fight my accuser but I also had to fight the Church, because it didn’t help in any way.”
Sarah Mac Donald reports for The Tablet from Ireland.
Tim Hazelwood reflects on the terrible situation in which he was unjustly placed.
Experience and reflections of a priest who fought to clear his name.
This ordeal began on the 20th of March 2010 when I was informed by the Child Protection Officer of the diocese that they had received an anonymous complaint against me some time previously. This is the story and a reflection taken from the perspective of a priest who was wrongly accused and who has fought and succeeded over six years to clear his name.
Despite the fact that the accusation was anonymous, the accuser had not come forward, and the National Board for Safeguarding Children advised that no action should be taken, my diocese proceeded to inform the Police (Gardai) and the Health Board, giving them my name. Why, when I was entitled to my good name? Canon 1717 says, “Care is to be taken that this investigation does not call into question anyone’s good name.” My right to my good name and reputation was clearly disregarded.
Despite the scant information given to me I was able to identify my accuser and was at a total loss to understand the motivation behind the claims being made. The vulnerability of my position was further played on when a campaign of harassment and intimidation by the accuser was initiated with phone calls, to me and others and an anonymous letter.
When the website of the Association of Catholic Priests was contacted and my name given it was time to act. With the support of the association I contacted their Solicitor who advised me to make a complaint against the accuser. The result was that my accuser was questioned by the Gardai (Police) about the harassment but the Director of Public Prosecutions advised that the intimidation was not sufficient to gain a conviction.
At this stage my desire to clear my name was stronger than ever and consequently lodged a civil action in the High Court. Despite the huge financial risk I needed justice to be done.
In the preparation for the case I requested my file and any notes that might help my case from the diocese. I was met with a complete and total lack of cooperation, even to the extent of feeling threatened and bullied by the Child Protection Officer. With persistence I eventually received a redacted version, with the important and what might be helpful parts excluded.
In my attempt to defend myself not only was I unsupported but clearly frustrated. Significantly from the scant information I did receive, I discovered that I had been blatantly lied to as well. A later revelation shocked me further in that my accuser had informed the diocese that he had been stalking me and I had not been informed.
After six years my accuser has now settled the court action I had taken. I have received a detailed signed retraction and admission that lies had been told and a signed apology was received. My legal fees were paid and a generous donation to my nominated charity has been paid.
While I have no understanding behind the motives of my accuser my reflections are mainly around my church which I felt “cut me loose”, hung me out to dry, disowned me and left me feeling very alone. I struggled between my desire to clear my name and the expectation to lie low and to say nothing, hoping that it will go away.
However, as I reflect on these years and the position in which I found myself, I am thinking about the sad reality of the darker side of our human narrative. Huge damage has been done by clerical sex abuse and I believe that a majority of complaints are genuine. Today the issue remains current, allegations against ‘celebrities’ in England, and in Ireland the lid is being lifted on abuse within foster care. While these tragedies continue natural justice nonetheless needs to be done for both accused and accuser.
From my own experience I am led to think particularly of the accused person who is innocent.
Is he in fact presumed guilty until proven innocent?
Does he have rights even to view his own file?
Does he have a right to know that he has been accused, before his name is filed and passed on to authorities?
Has he a right to know an organisation’s or Church’s safeguarding policy?
I tried on three occasions to gain this information from the National Board but was fobbed off. What is the Church’s policy on anonymous complaints? What support system is in place for priests wrongly accused and who choose to fight for their good name?
I felt totally abandoned by “my Church” and often thought about people on death row who had committed heinous crimes and yet are not abandoned by family and friends. Where does duty of care to members come in?
To my mind a pastoral rethink is more than in order. Even larger questions need to be asked. How is it that this culture exists within the organisation?
While my accuser is no longer an ongoing issue my journey continues. There have been many learnings for me from the experience. My foremost challenge now is to deal with the hurt and resentments I am left with. I believe that mercy and forgiveness are as important as truth and justice. But justice also involves accountability and an admission of the wrongs that have been done both by the organisation and by individuals.
But can that or will that happen? I have my doubts. I hope and pray to be proven wrong.
Parish Priest of Killeagh Co Cork. Ireland.