The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle is in turmoil after four inquiries, including one by the Vatican, have been launched into what happened there during the tenure of its former bishop, Robert Byrne.
Archbishop Malcom McMahon of Liverpool, who has taken over as administrator of Hexham and Newcastle, has been asked by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, to report on what led to the resignation of Byrne who quit in December, citing that the burdens of office were “too great a burden”.
The Vatican review and the other inquiries – by the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA), the Charity Commission and the police – have followed the intervention some weeks ago by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, after he received several complaints about the diocese and Bishop Byrne.
One of the complainants to the nuncio told The Tablet this week: “The cathedral had become a laughing stock”.
Among the complaints Gugerotti is understood to have received were claims that a sex party was held on cathedral premises during the Covid lockdown.
He was also told of an allegation that a drag artist had performed at the cathedral, also during the lockdown, when the cathedral was closed to the public but priests were still present to celebrate Mass and technicians livestreamed the Masses. There is no suggestion that Bishop Byrne was present.
Apart from the McMahon investigation on behalf of Rome, the other inquiries are the CSSA’s wide-ranging review into safeguarding in the diocese's culture and governance, the Charity Commission’s inquiry, following what is called “a serious incident referral”, and a police inquiry into an historic allegation against Bishop Byrne, believed to be about a priest of another diocese.
Concerns about the situation in Hexham and Newcastle were raised after another police inquiry began, following an historic allegation against Fr Michael McCoy, the dean of the Catholic cathedral of St Mary, in Newcastle.
Byrne, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, was appointed as bishop of Hexham and Newcastle early in 2019, and by September that year had moved the hugely popular Fr Dermot Donnelly from the cathedral, where he had been dean for six years, and installed Fr McCoy.
Eighteen months later, Northumbria police informed McCoy that he was being investigated regarding an allegation of abuse. McCoy moved out of his cathedral quarters but died four days later. An inquest in May 2022 ruled that he had taken his own life.
Diocese officials had previously become aware of claims of inappropriate events being hosted on cathedral premises, including suggestions that there was “a sex party taking place in the priests’ living quarters attached to Newcastle cathedral” during lockdown.
Others said that a drag artist also performed on the cathedral site. McCoy, who was dean at the time, is said to have approached people asking if they would like to attend the events, according to a source close to the CSSA investigation.
There was also concern about the presence of Fr Tim Gardner, a Dominican friar and former adviser to the Catholic Education Service, who was convicted in 2014 of making and possessing hundreds of indecent pictures of children, in the diocese.
A suggestion that Gardner should live in Byrne’s house was vetoed by safeguarding advisers, but he is understood to have stayed in Newcastle. One witness said he was seen in the cathedral at one point, conversing with McCoy.
The CSSA confirmed this week that its team of auditors has begun its review of safeguarding in the diocese and will be studying documents and interviewing witnesses, including serving and former clergy, lay staff and volunteers.
Last week, Archbishop McMahon, in his capacity as apostolic administrator, wrote to diocesan clergy to tell them about the CSSA’s involvement and that “The purpose of the review is to audit and examine the culture, governance, processes and practice of safeguarding in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle”, and that he had been asked by the Dicastery for Bishops “to prepare an in-depth report into the events leading up to Bishop Byrne’s resignation”.
The chair of the CSSA Nazir Afzal said: “We will leave no stone unturned when it comes to keeping people safe, and this includes investigating the safeguarding culture in Hexham and Newcastle”.