Priest returns to duties after abuse allegation is discounted

A SLIGO parish priest said he was looking forward to resuming his duties after being targeted by what he claimed was an untrue allegation of abuse.

Canon Niall Ahern stepped down as parish priest of Strandhill last February at the request of his bishop but has now been informed that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has decided not to take a prosecution.

He said he was relieved that this harrowing time was over.

“While the truth was being independently and categorically determined I stood aside from ministry. This is now concluded and I greatly look forward to resuming my work in the parish.”

The allegation of abuse dated back to the late 1970s. Gardaí in Sligo confirmed the DPP had informed them on Thursday of the decision not to take a prosecution in the case.

In a statement, Canon Ahern said he was conscious that he was neither the first nor the last person to suffer an untrue allegation.

“Nonetheless, these days such an accusation can force a priest to abandon his normal life until he can positively prove his innocence.”

But he said that priests should not feel bitter.

“Our church was in the past too slow to take action on such matters. A part of the price we pay for this is that priests have to take the approach that I in conscience took and which is the recent practice of the Church in Ireland.”

Canon Ahern, who is in his late 50s, is originally from Boyle in Co Roscommon. He was ordained in 1973, and was instrumental in organising ceremonies to welcome Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she visited Sligo in 1993.

After stepping down from his duties as parish priest at Strandhill parish, he moved to the administration section of the Elphin diocese in Sligo town.

“There are exciting opportunities in pastoral ministry today and with God’s help I will continue to make this my life’s work,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones, said he would be releasing a statement later today.

The DPP’s decision not to prosecute is certain to revive the controversy about the practice of requiring priests under investigation to stand down from their duties.

A number of priests have criticised the church’s policy in recent times, saying that there was now an immediate presumption of guilt.

The Catholic Church put its new child-protection policy in place last year, after the publication of the damning Ferns inquiry into child sexual abuse by priests.

Under the policy, the church’s Director of Child Protection must inform the gardaí of any allegations of abuse against a member of the clergy where there are reasonable grounds for concern. The director can recommend that the person in question step aside or take administrative leave.

“While a request to take administrative leave may cause significant distress, it may be an essential and precautionary process to protect children and to allow time to establish if there is a basis to an allegation or suspicion of child abuse,” the guidelines read.

“The right to natural justice and presumption of innocence must be preserved,” they add.

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