'You're presumed guilty and priests are terrified' - Irish priest falsely accused of sexually abusing a child
'It's the worst thing possible if someone makes a false accusation about you, people are living in fear of that'
A priest who was falsely accused of sexually abusing a child has called the ordeal "years of hell" and said he received no official support from the Catholic church.
Father Tim Hazelwood said that factors such as years of scandals involving the church and an increased workload are putting our clergymen at an increased risk of suicide and he is encouraging them to reach out if they are under strain.
In 2009 he said he was informed that an anonymous complaint about child abuse had been made against him to the diocese.
The individual never came forward and the complaint was forwarded to the HSE and the gardaí.
The man then proceeded to send anonymous letters and threatening phone-calls to the priest directly Fr Hazelwood said.
Eventually he discovered who the complainant was and made a complaint to gardaí.
However, a criminal case against the man was not pursued and the priest opted to take a civil case in the High Court and in 2016 his accuser admitted making the false accusation and made a contribution to charity.
Fr Hazelwood spoke candidly to Independent.ie about the toll it took on his mental health and the lack of support he received from church officials.
He said: "It's the worst thing possible if someone makes a false accusation about you, people are living in fear of that.
"I'd seven years of hell and some of the policies that exist aren't very priest-friendly, you're presumed guilty and priests are terrified.
"I got no support, nobody official from the church came to see me or to ask how I was getting on, in some ways I felt they actually put stumbling blocks in my way.
"That's why I got involved with the Association of Catholic Priests, it's vital you have a support network, you're on your own, you're isolated, and because we don't have immediate families with us it's much worse."
Fr Hazelwood, who is aged in his late 50s, said that asking for help got him through that time.
He said: "I'm lucky that I trained as a psychotherapist, I went for help, I couldn't sleep and was on sleeping tablets.
"It would hit you every now and again but I went for help, I was lucky that I knew the value of getting help but the majority of priests wouldn't have that training.
"It wasn't easy though, it was the worst few years of my life.
"I would tell anyone who is struggling to speak to someone, go to the ACP if you need help, but don't suffer on your own, that's our big thing.
"It's a sign of strength to ask for help."
Fr Hazelwood, who is parish priest of Killeagh, Co Cork is now on the leadership team for the Association of Catholic Priests and warned that many of their members are worried about their mental health.
He explained: "The average age of a priest is now 70 and the reality is that the workload is pretty big and we've less help.
"For example, I'm in a parish where there used to be two priests and now I'm on my own.
"So you have an ageing group of men and their workload is pretty big, we are all looking to the future.
"When it comes to the younger priests we are concerned about them as well because what's the future going to hold?
"At one of our meetings one of the younger priests, who is aged in 40s, said he knows he could end up over two or three parishes as the church is reacting by making the parishes into clusters to share resources.
"The lads are concerned this isn't working, they're worn out, the majority of priests I know love their work but there has to be a balance.
"There are some priests I know who would love to retire but they know there won't be another priest in their parish in the future.
"They feel obliged to stay on and don't want to let anyone down.
"The standard is that at 75 you're allowed to retire and in some parishes that is being extended, it's a vocation and fellas are glad to do it but when you see more work and no light at the end of the tunnel it can be hard."
He also addressed other issues that can impact on priests.
He said: "There's an emotional toll of being part of funerals and knowing them but you still have to work the next day, you just have to get on with it.
"There have been a lot of scandals over the years, that has been very negative on priests who feel hurt and let down.
"That stays with you, you don't just brush that aside.
"The expectation in the church is that you have to have this kind of perfect image and always be in good form.
"Humanly that's not possible and there's off-days or even off-months."
He said that he feels that members of the public, including women, should be given a greater role in the church.
Fr Hazelwood said: "I think the reality is that God is leading us in a different direction but I think as a church we are resisting, we have to accept that the old way is gone.
"We have to be open and allow lay people to take over some of the roles and functions that priests do.
"Also, if it wasn't for the women in my parish it would probably close down.
"Pope Francis is looking into ordaining women as deacons and in today's world I think women should be given a strong, leadership role, which they are denied - it's giving off a very bad message."
For more information about the Association of Catholic Priests, please visit here.
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