Derry Bishop Dr. Dónal McKeown speaks of ‘terrible’ child abuse at funeral of predecessor Bishop Séamus Hegarty

Priests from the Derry Diocese carry the coffin of Bishop Samus Hegarty from St Eugenes Cathedral, after Requiem Mass  yesterday afternoon, for burial in the cathedral grounds.
Priests from the Derry Diocese carry the coffin of Bishop Samus Hegarty from St Eugenes Cathedral, after Requiem Mass yesterday afternoon, for burial in the cathedral grounds.

The Bishop of Derry spoke of the “terrible crimes” of child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church’s flawed response to the scandal at his predecessor’s funeral in the city yesterday.

Mourners at the Funeral Mass for Dr. Séamus Hegarty, who led the Derry diocese from 1994 to 2011, heard that his years as Bishop had been “heavily marked” by revelations of child abuse.

Grave errors, said Bishop Dónal McKeown, had, for a range of reasons, been made in response to a “wave” of abuse allegations.

As a result, said Dr. McKeown, a “legacy of pain, alienation and mistrust” had been left behind.

During his time in Derry, Bishop Hegarty caused controversy on a number of occasions for his response to the issue of clerical child abuse.

In 2005, he publicly apologised to Derry parishioners for not telling them that some of their donations were going towards a central church fund to support victims of clerical sex abuse.

In 2011, when he retired on health grounds, he said he was “deeply sorry” for his “sometimes poor” handling of child abuse allegations.

Hundreds of people, including scores of priests and schoolchildren - gathered at St. Eugene’s Cathedral yesterday to say farewell to Dr. Hegarty (79) who passed away on Friday last following a long illness.

Mourners heard of Dr. Hegarty’s “unflagging loyalty to the church” and his efforts to “build bridges” between the two communities in Derry.

He was hailed as a “simple man who had a passion for education and a deep sense of commitment to Irish emigrants.

“Kindness and generosity were hallmarks of his nature – even though a tougher exterior might sometimes have shown itself,” said Dr. McKeown.

Bishop Séamus Hegarty was, at heart, a simple man with an “uncomplicated faith” his successor as Bishop of Derry told his Funeral Mass at St Eugene’s Cathedral yesterday.

Dr Hegarty passed away on Friday last following a long illness - something Bishop Dónal McKeown referred to in the opening remarks of his homily.

“While his body had kept going until a few days ago, much of who he was had ebbed away over the last eight years since he was forced to retire as Bishop of Derry because of ill health,” he said. “Dementia, in its various forms, is a cruel affliction. Much of the person has died long before the heart ceases to beat.”

According to Dr. McKeown, his predecessor was a proud Donegal man through-and-through.

“When both your parents, your four grandparents and six of your great-grandparents come from Kilcar, you know who you are!”

For Dr Hegarty and his two siblings, revealed Dr McKeown, education provided the opportunity to see “broader horizons” and they all took advantage of the chances that they received.

“While Irish was his first language, he was blessed with a real grá for other languages and an openness to exploring the centuries-old links between Irish people and Europe.

“His fluency in German permitted him to spend the summer working in German parishes, including one spell in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising where the then bishop was Archbishop Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict.”

He added: “He was called to leadership in Raphoe at an early stage. In all those tasks that he was asked to assume, he carried those out with a deep sense of duty and loyalty.

"After some years as a very young school principal in Falcarragh, he was appointed Bishop of Raphoe at the age of 42 and served there for 12 years, followed by 17 years as Bishop in this diocese, being nominated to Derry almost exactly 25 years ago on October 1, 1994.

"These were very challenging years North and South, partly connected with the Troubles, where – like many church people – he used all possible channels to stop killing and to build bridges.”

Dr McKeown paid tribute to his colleague’s deep sense of commitment to Irish emigrants and his work to support emigrant chaplaincies around the world.

He also, he said, had a passion for education and many of the excellent schools in the Derry diocese were built during his time.

His uncomplicated faith, added Bishop McKeown, “trusted in the love and wisdom of God - even when the winds seemed to howl around outside.”