Priest’s secret past revealed

A SENIOR staff member sacked from a Roman Catholic children’s home in Market Weighton for sexually abusing boys went on to become a priest in the same diocese, it was revealed this week.

Father Joseph O’Brien, who was dismissed for abusing a number of boys at St William’s Community Home, went on to serve as a priest in Thirsk for 15 years.

The case casts another shadow over the Roman Catholic Church, which has been the subject of a series of accusations that it harboured priests who abused children.

It also poses questions for Humberside Police, which was made aware of Father O’Brien’s actions but did not interview or arrest him when his history was flagged up in a formal witness statement in 2002. Father O’Brien died in January last year.

He was sacked from his position as deputy principal at St William’s in 1965 and escorted from the building. At that time, Father O’Brien was a member of the De La Salle Brotherhood, a Catholic lay order which ran the home, and was known as Brother Ambrose O’Brien.

The dismissal was formally reported to the board of managers at the home, which was part of the Middlesbrough Diocese.

But in 1972, while still a member of the De La Salle Brotherhood, he asked the then Bishop of Middlesbrough, the late Bishop McClean, if he could train to become a priest.

The diocese has said that the Bishop sought a reference from De La Salle but was not told why Father O’Brien had been sacked from St William’s.

De La Salle has confirmed it did not in its reference say why the then Brother Ambrose O’Brien was sacked. But the brotherhood also pointed out the diocese held recorded evidence of the dismissal.

He was consequently able to train at Ushaw College in Durham and was ordained in 1975.

Father O’Brien went on to serve at churches in Middlesbrough before moving to North Yorkshire, and had a 15-year spell at All Saints’ in Thirsk, from where he retired in 1998.

When he died last year, aged 87, the diocese held a funeral Mass attended by the current bishop – Bishop Drainey – and 20 other priests.

The diocese published details of the Mass on its website, including the homily, but there was no reference to Father O’Brien’s dismissal from St William’s.

It has been said that Humberside Police, which has previously been censured by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) over failings in its investigation into St William’s, was told about Father O’Brien’s sacking, along with suggestions that he might have gone on to abuse other children while a priest.

A witness statement provided on January 23, 2002 by Noel Hartnett, who was himself the subject of investigation but cleared of any wrongdoing, directly identified Father O’Brien as a perpetrator. Mr Hartnett, a former Brother at the home, informed two detectives why Father O’Brien was sacked and told them that he himself was present when the home’s principal carried out the dismissal.

He also told them a priest in the diocese had approached him during the early 1990s for information on Father O’Brien because the priest had heard of allegations of more recent abuse. Mr Hartnett told police the priest said he was compiling a dossier to send to the bishop.

The priest, who has since retired and is into his 80s, has denied the existence of any dossier.

He said he recalled receiving a letter which he had passed to the diocese which he said had subsequently been dealt with by the diocese’s solicitors.

He declined to say who the letter was from and declared, in Latin, he considered the matter “finished”.

The diocese denied it ever received a dossier and said it has no record of further allegations against Father O’Brien. It declined to comment on the letter the retired priest had forwarded.

A spokesman said “…if the De la Salle Provincial had informed Bishop McClean of Father O’Brien’s departure from St William’s and the reasons for it, Bishop McClean would have directed that the matter be investigated in the same way as any complaint made against a diocesan priest, or prospective diocesan priest, and would have given serious consideration to the outcome of that investigation when deciding whether or not to accept Father O’Brien for training for the priesthood.”

A De La Salle spokesman acknowledged that it could not explain why there was no reference to the dismissal in the reference provided to the Bishop. But he added that “the St William’s management committee which was part of the Middlesbrough Diocese was informed about the reasons for the departure of Joseph O’Brien.”

Humberside Police said there was an ongoing inquiry into fresh allegations over St William’s.