A PARISH priest who was cleared by the courts on sexual-assault charges more than six months ago is still waiting for clearance from Rome to return to his parish.
Fr Eugene Boland says he is "extremely hopeful" that he will get the go-ahead to do so in the new year.
It is thought that up to 10 other priests in Ireland are currently awaiting clearance to return to their posts after being cleared by investigations.
The Donegal-born priest was forced to stand down from public ministry in August 2010 after allegations had been made against him in the Derry diocese.
Fr Boland (66) was acquitted by a jury last June on sexual-assault charges brought as a result of allegations dating back 20 years.
He has spent the past six months explaining to parishioners and friends why he can't return to the pulpit.
"A lot of people don't understand Canon Law – and as a priest I'm bound by that too," he told the Irish Independent.
"Parishioners had been very supportive and they want me back as soon as possible. Of course, I want to go back but I have to wait a little while longer. Hopefully the New Year will see it all finally resolved."
Even though he was cleared unanimously on all five charges, Fr Boland must now await an investigation by the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Headed by German archbishop and leading church theologian Gerhard Muller, the powerful committee is responsible for investigating all allegations against the clergy.
"It would have been nice to have been back for Christmas but I will wait on them," said Fr Boland. "I know in my heart that I will return to my parish of St Mary's, Killyclogher and it is a day I am looking forward to. I just have to be patient.
"I spent a wonderful Christmas with my family in Co Kildare and it was by far the best Christmas I've ever had. A whole weight has been lifted off my shoulders."