Priest preyed on victim (7) during practice confessions

Maeve Connolly

A west Belfast priest used practice confessions to abuse a seven-year-old boy, a court has heard.

Fr James Donaghy abused the child in the library of his west Belfast primary school as he prepared the little boy for his First Communion and Confession.

One instance of abuse occurred as the boy grieved for his grandfather, Belfast Crown Court heard yesterday. The paedophile priest told the boy he could get his grandfather into heaven if the boy performed a sex act on him.

Donaghy has pleaded guilty to four counts of indecent assault and one of common assault. The abuse was detailed during a pre-sentence hearing. The boy is Donaghy's fourth victim. The offences occurred in 1989 when Donaghy was a curate in Corpus Christi parish in Ballymurphy, west Belfast.

At a previous trial the 55-year-old from Lisburn, Co Antrim, had denied sexually assaulting three male victims between 1983 and 2000 but was found guilty by a jury of 23 charges of indecent and serious sexual assault. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence. The court heard yesterday that Donaghy, who is still a priest but is in the process of being laicised by the Vatican, held mock confessions in the library of his victim's primary school.

At one session he told the seven-year-old he "was trouble at home and needed to be good" and that one way was to "be nice or kind to the priest".

He then exposed himself to the child, warning him not to tell anyone since "it was a practice confession and you aren't supposed to tell anyone other than the priest".

The court was told that Donaghy repeated his actions on several more occasions and made the child touch him. The abuse escalated after the sudden death of the boy's grandfather, the prosecution said. when asked by Donaghy how he felt about the loss, the boy said "he was worried about him going to purgatory and the defendant said he could get him into heaven" if the child "helped him".

The cleric then made the child perform a sex act on him and said "this was to get his grandfather into heaven and if he told anyone this wouldn't work", a prosecuting barrister said. The victim went to confession on the eve of making his First Communion to talk about what had happened but discovered that Donaghy was the priest on duty, the court heard.

"He said he didn't understand what had happened but felt he had sinned," the prosecution lawyer said.

"The defendant asked him what he had done and he said everything in the school with him.

"The defendant told him he did not need confession and he left the box and the next thing he knew was when the defendant swung the door open, reached in, pulled him out by the shoulder and put him out of the church and told him to go home in an aggressive manner."

Donaghy never spoke to the boy again, the lawyer said. The victim told the Catholic Church about the abuse in 2006 and a senior priest reported it to police but the victim felt unable to deal with court proceedings at that time. He made a statement to police in 2010 and a prosecution followed. The victim was "very pleased and relieved at not having to give evidence" due to Donaghy's guilty plea, the prosecution lawyer said.

Donaghy's barrister said his client should be given credit for pleading guilty which he said had been a "road to Damascus" moment and would help with the rehabilitation of a cleric who had taken "a very large fall from grace".

However, the prosecution lawyer said Donaghy could have admitted his guilt at any time from the point in September 2010 when he was questioned by police and denied the allegations, telling detectives he did not remember the victim. The defence also submitted two character references which described Donaghy as having provided "pastoral care of the highest degree" and teaching students at st Louise's College in west Belfast, where he was chaplain, "to respect society, particularly the elderly and lonely".

The defence barrister said Donaghy had been appointed to Corpus Christi parish, which covered Ballymurphy and Turf Lodge, in the mid-1980s and "the pressure on a 26-year-old in west Belfast at that time... would have been tough".

Donaghy had served in other parishes during 21 years in ministry including St Anne's in Derriaghy, St Michael the Arch-angel's in Finaghy, west Belfast, Corpus Christi and St Theresa's in west Belfast, Whitehouse in whiteabbey, Co Antrim, and Bangor in Co Down.

The judge adjourned sentencing until Friday.