Secretly-married priest jailed for sex assault on 17-year-old girl

 

A secretly-married priest who sexually assaulted a teenage girl in what a judge described as an “enormous breach of trust” was today jailed for six months.

William Finnegan, known to his parishioners as Father Bill, touched the 17-year-old's bottom and "passionately" kissed her at St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Fagley, Bradford last Easter.

Finnegan, 60, remains "in denial" about the offence, which led to his "considerable fall from grace" the Recorder of Bradford Judge Roger Thomas QC said as he jailed Finnegan.

"It just seems to me he cannot face up to what he's done," Judge Thomas added.

"I don't know what motivates him but maybe it's because he cannot afford to lose so much face and be in a state of shame in front of those who support him."

The judge also criticised some of Finnegan's parishioners who defiantly stood by their former priest, supporting him despite his conviction, and shunning the young victim.

He said: "Maybe some of them would believe the sun would rise in the west tomorrow if he said it."

Finnegan, who was suspended after allegations about the assault emerged, was found guilty by jurors following a trial at Bradford Crown Court.

During the trial he told the court and his diocese that he shirked his vow of celibacy by secretly marrying Beverley Dawson in 1999.

He wed the previously-married mother of two in Cyprus after meeting her at his former parish in Castleford, West Yorkshire, jurors heard.

The disclosure of his relationship came after Ms Dawson was called by the court to give evidence.

She said she and her husband, who voluntarily stepped down from his role, had never permanently lived together but saw each other regularly, had a sexual relationship and went on holidays together. Each week after he finished church services on Sunday he would visit her, then go back to work on Tuesday, she said.

Finnegan, who joined the church in 1977, "became sexually attracted" to the victim, referred to in court as B, and admitted he had "sexual feelings" for the sixth-form student, Judge Thomas said.

"On Easter Sunday, you did not restrain yourself and you acted out of your sexual attraction to B by committing this offence of sexual assault," the judge added.

"You said that you loved her and you forcibly took hold of her. You put a hand behind her head and with your other hand you took hold of her bottom.

"In that hold you repeatedly kissed her on her mouth which B described as 'passionate, not the sort of kiss you'd give your mum or dad, not even a kiss you'd give a boyfriend on a first date'.

"You had not only physically molested her but you had also put her in a massively difficult position in being able to report what you, as a priest, had done to her."

Finnegan, of Acacia Close, Castleford, West Yorkshire, later tried to silence her with bribes of "a good birthday present later in the year", the court heard, but she told her family and the clergyman was arrested.

The teen said she has been left feeling "frightened" and "extremely vulnerable".

In an impact statement read out in court, she said: "One of the main issues that's affected me is Father Bill could lie and put me through a trial. Why did he do that? He is supposed to be a man of God.

"I feel that what Father Bill did was a huge breach of trust."

Jeremy Hill-Baker QC, mitigating, said Finnegan has attempted suicide by swallowing painkillers and washing them down with whiskey as he struggled to come to terms with his prosecution.

The priest left a suicide note and was resuscitated by his wife who gave him CPR, the court heard.

Mr Hill-Baker said the offence was a one-off and "in the lowest band" of sex crimes but has had a catastrophic affect on Finnegan.

"After decades of exemplary ministry, materially helping in a most graphic way the community in which he has lived and worked, his ministry is over," he said.

"His reputation is in ruins, he's without income, he has no pension. He is fortunate he can live with his wife... he has lost his accommodation.

"He has had the threat of custody hanging over him very graphically since your honour warned him of that possibility at the conclusion of the trial in March."

Mr Hill-Baker said he had received many letters of support for Finnegan from parishioners and friends.

"The parish was very much divided by this," adding that some parishioners "took their own views" over what happened and have "taken against" the victim.

However, Judge Thomas said: "It's an unhappy feature of this that the opinion of the local church and the local congregation seems to be so strong, not just in support of their priest, which I can understand, but against this girl.

"He's such a good man in their eyes. Maybe some of them would believe the sun would rise in the west tomorrow if he said it."

Ordering Finnegan to sign the sex offenders' register for seven years, he added: "I am driven to the conclusion that the only sentence that I can and should follow here is a sentence of imprisonment."

Judge Thomas told Finnegan he had not only caused anguish to his victim but also "caused real damage to the wider church community, particularly perhaps the Catholic Church at a time when such churches can ill afford such damage".

Following Finnegan's conviction after he pleaded not guilty and went on trial last month, his employer, the Diocese of Leeds, said it was "shocked" at his secret marriage and ashamed of his conduct.

It stressed that he has stepped down from his role and will never be allowed to be a priest again.

In a written statement, diocesan administrator Monsignor John Wilson said: "I first want to express my deep sense of shame at the actions of William Finnegan.

"I also want to express my sorrow and regret to his victim. I realise that this has been a very difficult and distressing time for you and your family. My thoughts and prayers are with you and my door is open to you."

He added: "It emerged during the trial that William Finnegan, contrary to the discipline of the Catholic Church, had married in a civil ceremony in Cyprus in 1999. This news was as shocking to the officials of the Diocese as it was to all those present in court and is another example of the gross breaches of trust committed by William Finnegan.

"I wish to make clear that William Finnegan voluntarily stepped down from his role as parish priest for the duration of the criminal proceedings and Bishop Roche withdrew his priestly faculties. In light of this conviction and his entering into civil marriage he will be unable to return to priestly ministry."

PA

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