Chapter 26 of the Cloyne Report deals with concerns raised about Bishop Magee’s own interaction with a 17-year-old youth.
Bishop Magee is the only cleric to be identified in this way in the report, as the Commission says that because he was the only bishop in the diocese it was impossible to withhold his identity in the same way that it did with other priests against whom allegations of abuse were made. The concerns relate to a young man ‘Joseph’, who was accepted into the priesthood but who later, for family reasons, decided not to take up the vocation.
At a subsequent meeting with Bishop Magee, which was the first time he had spent time alone with the bishop, Joseph reported that the bishop embraced him tightly for around a minute and at the same time asked if it ‘felt good’. Joseph also stated that Bishop Magee kissed him on the forehead. Joseph also claimed that the bishop told him he loved him and that he dreamt about him. Joseph’s contemporaneous reaction was that the actions of the bishop were ‘paternal’. However, on hearing the publicity surrounding publication of the Elliot Report, he reviewed his interactions with the bishop.
He asked Fr Bermingham’s views of the behaviour, who responded that given Joseph’s age at the time the behaviour described, did not constitute an allegation of child sexual abuse. However, he did express the view that the behaviour was inappropriate. Fr Bermingham then sought the advice of Ian Elliot of the Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children, who agreed with his assessment that the matter was not reportable under the ‘Our Children, Our Church’ guidelines. Both men agreed to inform Joseph of the decision and explain why.
Fr Bermingham was then forced to inform Bishop Magee of the issue, who replied with words to the effect that he would never harm that young man. Fr Bermingham later told Archbishop Clifford that Bishop Magee admitted to the gestures, but had not said whether or not he had used the reported words.
Bishop Magee denied to Archbishop Clifford that he had kissed Joseph on the forehead, claiming instead that he had made the sign of the cross on his forehead. Bishop Magee did acknowledge that he had told Joseph that he dreamt of him ‘as a lovely priest’ and he acknowledged that he told Joseph that he loved him to comfort him as he was upset by family problems.
Joseph later contacted Ian Elliot directly, who offered him counselling and told him that what he had described was not abusive in itself and therefore would not be a matter for the gardaí. The same conclusion was reached by a detective garda contacted by Joseph, although there was a recognition that the behaviour of Bishop Magee was unprofessional and inappropriate.
At a meeting of bishops in January 2009, Bishop Magee revealed to his colleagues, in the context of the stress he was under at the time, that he had received a death threat on Christmas Eve. Cardinal Brady told the commission that the bishops present were not at all of one view about whether Bishop Magee should resign or not. Four days later he did resign.
After Bishop Magee’s resignation, Fr Bermingham reported Joseph’s concerns to the HSE and local garda superintendent. This followed
further interaction with Ian Elliot. The two men decided that the better course of action was to make a report because one view of the behaviour was that it could be considered as grooming.
Archbishop Clifford later met Joseph and the man recalled his perception that both Archbishop Clifford and Fr Bermingham put a lot of energy into defending the Bishop’s actions.
They claimed the embrace was ‘an Italianate gesture,’ picked up in Rome. But Joseph was not impressed with the explanation. Joseph later met with a social worker from the HSE, who concluded, like the gardaí and Ian Elliot, that the incident was not abusive but was inappropriate. Bishop Magee later received ‘boundary counselling’ at which he was warned to be extremely careful to avoid the kind of behaviour that had led to the present difficulties. The gardaí forwarded a file to the DPP, who recommended no prosecution.
The Commission concludes that the case was dealt with appropriately and lends special praise to Fr Bermingham’s handling of it.