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UK bishop’s errors left people at risk, says safeguarding review

A safeguarding review has identified “failures of culture, leadership, and governance” during the tenure of a bishop who resigned unexpectedly as the head of an English diocese last December.

Bishop Robert Byrne, pictured on March 25, 2019, the date of his installation as Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in England. © Mazur/

The Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) said June 11 that the errors committed during Bishop Robert Byrne’s almost four years as Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle diocese in northeast England “undermined the work of safeguarding professionals and left people at potential risk.”


The CSSA’s 57-page safeguarding review focused on two main areas of concern during Byrne’s episcopacy: His friendship with a cleric who is a registered sex offender, identified in the review as “Father A,” and his decision to appoint as dean of the diocesan cathedral Canon Michael McCoy, who was accused of inappropriate interactions and grooming behavior with teenage boys, and died by suicide in April 2021.

The report said that Byrne’s assertion that he did not know of McCoy’s safeguarding history before the cathedral appointment “does not stand up to scrutiny.”

It also concluded that Byrne’s association with Father A was “inappropriate and undermined safeguarding professionals, other employees and trustees.”

“There was a lack of clear and unambiguous support from Bishop Byrne for the Church’s position of zero tolerance of abuse,” the review said. 

“Any statements made by him to this effect were undermined by his association with a priest who is also a registered sex offender and his failure to follow safeguarding advice in terms of appointments, or responses to individual cases.” 

“His management of safeguarding was directly cited as a reason for lay trustees to resign, some questioned the selectivity of safeguarding issues with which he would deal, and others questioned whether he fully understood and supported the need for safeguarding at all.”

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The safeguarding review — which said it was satisfied that the diocese’s current safeguarding practice met minimum standards — was one of a series of investigations launched after Pope Francis unexpectedly accepted Byrne’s resignation on Dec. 12, 2022.

Byrne, a member of the Oratorians, was 66 at the time of his resignation, well below the typical retirement age for diocesan bishops of 75.

The pope appointed Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool as the apostolic administrator of Hexham and Newcastle diocese.

Following media reports of an alleged “lockdown sex party” at the diocesan cathedral, McMahon announced in January this year that he would oversee “an in-depth investigation into the events leading up to Bishop Robert’s resignation for the Holy See,” as well as “a full review of safeguarding in the diocese” by the CSSA, a professional standards body with regulatory powers set up by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in 2021.

The archbishop said that he was also “in close contact” with the Charity Commission for England and Wales, the diocese’s civil regulator, which is conducting a review.

On May 3, the archbishop issued a summary of the results of the canonical investigation, requested by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops. 

He said that Byrne’s tenure was marked by “a succession of errors of judgment.”

He explained that the report sent to the dicastery focused on four main issues: Events at the diocesan cathedral during the pandemic, Byrne’s decision to buy a new bishop’s house in 2020, Canon McCoy’s death, and Byrne’s association with a registered sex offender.

“Allegations that lewd parties took place at St. Mary’s Cathedral during the pandemic are simply untrue,” McMahon wrote, adding that Byrne was not present at gatherings at the cathedral house amid COVID restrictions.

The archbishop said that local Catholics saw the purchase of a new bishop’s house in “a middle-class area where property prices are high and out of reach for most people in the diocese” as an “error of judgment.”

Similarly, McMahon described McCoy’s promotion to “a high-profile position” as an error of judgment.

He added that Byrne “failed to understand the risks he was taking both for himself and the diocese” through his association with a convicted pedophile.

The CSSA made 12 recommendations for the Hexham and Newcastle diocese, which consists of 135 parishes serving around 172,000 Catholics, and 10 for the wider Catholic Church in England and Wales.

It said: “The diocese should acknowledge the impact of this review on those within the diocese, and make clear its renewed commitment to safeguarding those who come into contact with the Church. This commitment should be made by the Archbishop and trustees.”

The CSSA called on the English and Welsh bishops’ conference to offer guidance on the correct process when a bishop fails to implement decisions taken by a diocesan trustee safeguarding committee or a case advisory panel.

It also said that the conference should “set out expectations as to how dioceses manage complaints about their bishop.”

Archbishop McMahon said in a June 12 statement: “The diocese accepts all of the recommendations to improve safeguarding practices and to provide pastoral care and support, safety and protection to survivors. Together, we are committed to a safer safeguarding practice.”

The safeguarding review included a statement from Bishop Byrne, who said: “I take this opportunity to state that I fully support the aims and work of the CSSA. I share their commitment to safeguarding standards which are for the benefit of all within the Church. This has always been and remains my position.”

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