Omagh church 'safeguarding' row silences children's choir

Natasha Eccles said she was sacked as director of the junior choir at Sacred Heart Church in Omagh
Brendan Hughes

THE former director of a children's choir in a Co Tyrone parish has hit out at the handling of a dispute over 'safeguarding' which led to her position being terminated.

Natasha Eccles founded the Sacred Heart Church junior choir in Omagh at Christmas 2015, with around a dozen children aged between eight and 12 performing regularly at Saturday evening Mass.

However, the choir has not been allowed to perform since October and Ms Eccles claimed she has still not received details about the reason for the suspension.

The 37-year-old primary school teacher from Omagh said the first she heard from parish priest Fr Eugene Hasson about the matter was a letter dated St Stephen's Day – informing her that she had been sacked from her voluntary role.

"I miss junior choir terribly and I feel extremely sad for our children who aren't getting that chance to contribute to Mass, and there's anger at how this is being dealt with," she said.

She added: "It's the fact that we have waited nearly 80 days and the first communication I have had with the parish priest was a letter to say I was sacked. It's just very disappointing."

Ms Eccles said that following a choir performance at Mass on October 14, she was approached by a safeguarding representative for Drumragh Parish.

She said he wanted to meet to complete safeguarding audit documentation, but also told her that a "complaint had been made about me and the other safeguarding representative wanted to discuss that complaint".

"I was quite shocked. I said I need to know the detail of that complaint so that I can respond appropriately. I knew I hadn't actually done anything, but I wanted to know what the complaint is," she said.

"He said during the course of that conversation that he had no option but to suspend junior choir with immediate effect.

"I was absolutely gutted, because that little choir just means the world to me."

Ms Eccles said some parents were "quite frustrated" and contacted the parish about the suspension.

She added: "From that date we have tried to get information from the parish but they were refusing. They wouldn't answer calls. They wouldn't answer emails."

Ms Eccles said she also approached both the Derry diocese and the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

She said a national board representative had suggested arranging a meeting to "clear the logjam", and that she had been awaiting further details.

But Ms Eccles said she then received a letter during Christmas week from Fr Hasson, in which he claimed she had failed to meet local safeguarding representatives for an audit update.

The letter read: "Upon the recommendations of the parish safeguarding committee I must terminate your directorship of the junior choir with immediate effect.

"I thank you for everything you have done in the past."

The letter also asked Ms Eccles to remove a junior choir Facebook page, which has in recent weeks posted details of the dispute.

Rejecting the letter's claims, Ms Eccles said: "It said I had refused to meet with the safeguarding representatives but that is untrue because they had never given me a date to meet them."

She added: "I don't feel comfortable in going to that church any more because of the way I have been treated by them. I went to another parish over Christmas."

Drumragh parish declined to comment when contacted yesterday.

The National Board for Safeguarding Children was also unavailable for comment.

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