The Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle resigned last year following “a succession of errors of judgement”, a Vatican investigation has found.
But the review led by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool dismissed reports of “lewd parties” in the media as “simply untrue”.
The investigation identified four key issues which unsettled the leadership of the diocese by Bishop Robert Byrne, an Oratorian who stepped down in December almost a decade before he was due to retire, saying that the demands of his office were “too great a burden”.
They were the Covid pandemic; the purchase of a new Bishop’s House in 2020; the suicide of Canon Michael McCoy, the cathedral dean, in April 2021 and Bishop Byrne’s friendship with Timothy Gardner, a priest convicted in 2014 in connection with possessing images of child pornography.
The full report has not been made public but in an executive summary, Archbishop McMahon said such “key issues” were exacerbated by a series of errors of judgement by Bishop Byrne.
“In my view, he himself was unable to see a path forward and his failure to see his part in these situations made clear his inability to cope with the demands of his role,” said Archbishop McMahon.
“Bishop Byrne resigned from office because he felt unable to carry out the duties of his office,” he added. “During the course of this work I have found no reason to disbelieve him.”
More than 2,000 people submitted evidence to the inquiry via surveys.
The inquiry found that rumours of lewd parties during the pandemic were false, with the final report explaining that volunteers were “on occasion after long days” invited to share bottles of wine and take-away meals.
Archbishop McMahon wrote: “At the time, Covid regulations were in force and a report made to Northumbria Police, but no action taken.
“Subsequently, as part of this investigation a further report has been made to the police, who once again decided to take no action. Bishop Byrne was not present at any of these gatherings.”
The report identified the sale of Bishop’s House in West Denton and the purchase of a replacement at Gosforth as controversial because Bishop Byrne was perceived to be moving to a remote and upmarket location when he “could have relocated to a property that served his and his diocesan needs in a less conspicuous area at a lower cost”.
“This would have been a sign of his willingness to come closer to his people,” wrote Archbishop McMahon.
The report was very critical of Bishop Byrne’s appointment of Canon McCoy to a high profile position because the priest had a “safeguarding record”.
“Instead, Bishop Byrne could have paid greater heed to ensuring that Michael McCoy was appropriately managed given the safeguarding concerns which had been raised,” said Archbishop McMahon.
Canon McCoy took his own life, aged 57, when he learned he was being investigated by Northumbria Police’s child and adult protection department over an historic allegation of child abuse.
He had been installed as dean by Bishop Byrne in 2019, replacing the late Fr Dermott Donnelly, the brother of TV presenter Declan Donnelly.
Archbishop McMahon continued: “A further error of judgement occurred regarding Timothy Gardner, a member of the Dominican order who is a convicted paedophile who Bishop Byrne has known for many years.
“They were seen associating together in public in Newcastle and it was known that Gardner was a frequent visitor at Bishop’s House.
“Despite being advised by senior priests in the diocese that this was an inappropriate relationship Bishop Byrne insisted that it was a pastoral relationship and therefore appropriate and refused their advice.
“Bishop Byrne failed to understand the risks he was taking both for himself and the diocese.”
Archbishop McMahon added: “The safeguarding review carried out by the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency is near completion and will be published in the next few weeks.
“I have been encouraged by the interim reports to date and am satisfied that safeguarding in the diocese is safe.”
The archbishop, who was appointed apostolic administrator of Hexham and Newcastle, had earlier warned Catholics of the diocese to brace themselves for a period of “pain and shame” as investigators went about their work.
His letter followed the launch of the inquiry by the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops which sought “an in-depth report into the events leading up to Bishop Byrne’s resignation”. Safeguarding officials simultaneously began their own inquiry and the Diocese also referred itself to the Charity Commission.
The Vatican investigation specifically examined the conduct of past and present clergy, volunteers and staff and also focused on “culture and governance arrangements around the safeguarding process”.
At the time of his resignation, Bishop Byrne announced his intention to join the Oratorian Congregation in Oxford. He has not returned to the city, however, and is believed to be living in the south of England.
(Photo by Marcin Mazur, CCN)