04 May 2023, The Tablet

‘Succession of errors’ forced bishop to resign, says Vatican report

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon published a summary of his report “to answer some of the claims which have appeared in the media”.

‘Succession of errors’ forced bishop to resign, says Vatican report

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon (centre) has published a summary of his report on the resignation of Bishop Robert Byrne (left).
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales/Mazur

The Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle resigned after “a succession of errors of judgement” made his position untenable, according to a Vatican report.

Bishop Robert Byrne submitted his resignation to the Pope last December.  In January, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops commissioned the Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, to investigate the circumstances of his departure.

Bishop Byrne said that he left his office after it had “become too great a burden” and he was unable to carry out his duties.  In a summary of his investigation published yesterday, Archbishop McMahon said that he “found no reason to disbelieve him”.

The summary is “provided to answer some of the claims which have appeared in the media”.

Archbishop McMahon notes but does not comment on unspecified other matters surrounding the bishop’s resignation “which are internal to the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle and are not directly of public interest”.

His summary addresses specific events during Bishop Byrne’s tenure, including alleged parties in St Mary’s Cathedral during the Covid pandemic and major safeguarding scandals – the suicide of Canon Michael McCoy and the bishop’s association with the convicted paedophile Fr Timothy Gardner.

When the investigation began in January, allegations circulated of “sex parties” in the cathedral in Newcastle during lockdown.  

“Allegations that lewd parties took place at St Mary’s Cathedral during the pandemic are simply untrue,” Archbishop McMahon writes.  

His summary reports that refreshments were occasionally offered for volunteers at the cathedral house after permitted services, contrary to pandemic regulations. Northumbria police did not take action on two reports of this activity, one submitted at the time and another as part of Archbishop McMahon’s investigation.

The summary adds: “Bishop Byrne was not present at any of these gatherings.”

Canon McCoy, whom Bishop Byrne appointed dean of the cathedral shortly after his own installation in 2019, killed himself in 2021 after he was told that police were investigating historic sexual allegations against him.

Archbishop McMahon found that Byrne “had been notified from more than one source of the safeguarding issues” relating to Canon McCoy.

The summary continues: “It was an error of judgement to then promote a priest with a safeguarding record to a high-profile position.

“Instead, Bishop Byrne could have paid greater heed to ensuring that Michael McCoy was appropriately managed given the safeguarding concerns which had been raised.”

Timothy Gardner, a Dominican priest convicted in 2014 of making and possessing indecent images of children, met and associated with Bishop Byrne in Newcastle. The two had known each other for many years.

The report found that contrary to advice from “senior priests in the diocese that this was an inappropriate relationship”, Byrne maintained that it was pastoral and continued the association.

“Bishop Byrne failed to understand the risk he was taking both for himself and the diocese,” the summary says.

Alongside these matters, Archbishop McMahon notes the sale of Bishop’s House in the west of Newcastle and the move to another in the prosperous suburb of Gosforth, which attracted comment in the local and national press.

“Although the relocation realised a financial surplus, it was considered by many priests, deacons and people in the diocese to be an error of judgement.”

The summary suggests that Byrne should have found a property “in a less conspicuous area at a lower cost”.

“This would have been a sign of his willingness to come closer to his people.”

Archbishop McMahon also notes tensions in the diocese over the academisation of its schools, adding that it is a subject “which I will be looking into further in coming months”.

He concludes that Bishop Byrne’s errors “exacerbated the key issues” and that “his failure to see his part in these situations made clear his inability to cope with the demands of his role”.

In the course of the summary, the archbishop says that he has “no concerns in terms of governance or the operation of the diocese” and is “satisfied that safeguarding in the diocese is safe” after interim reports by the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency.

The agency is expected to publish its full report in the coming weeks.

The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle published Archbishop McMahon’s summary on its website and social media on Wednesday.

More than 2,000 clergy and lay people in the diocese responded to a survey circulated for the investigation. The archbishop said that its results will be published in a separate document.

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