Saturday 19 October 2019

I survived a priest's worst nightmare

Relief: Fr Eugene Boland at Pollan Strand in Ballyliffin.
Relief: Fr Eugene Boland at Pollan Strand in Ballyliffin.

Greg Harkin

A brisk wind batters Fr Eugene Boland's face as he walks along the shoreline on Co Donegal's remote Inishowen peninsula. But the breeze doesn't bother him.

He is just glad to be breathing the sea air and enjoying the stunning views offered by Ballyliffin beach after enduring his own very personal storm over the past two years.

For most of that time, the Catholic priest has been forced to live under a cloud after being accused of sexually assaulting a teenager.

It was a devastating period for him -- one that ended only when a jury found him innocent following an eight-day trial in June.

He was forced to step aside from his parish work while police investigated claims made by a now 37-year-old woman that he had indecently assaulted her over two decades earlier when she was just 14.

It was, he says, the "darkest two years of my life".

Fr Boland's predicament is not unique.

While many former priests have been convicted in the courts of abusing children, there are close to a dozen clerics on the island of Ireland who were forced to step aside only for the allegations made against them to later prove unfounded.

But few, if any, of these priests have spoken publicly, and what marks Fr Boland out is his willingness to openly discuss what it is like to live in the shadow of suspicion.

Born in Moville, Co Donegal, Fr Boland (66) has served in numerous parishes in the Derry Diocese, which covers four counties on both sides of the Border.

His world almost fell apart on March 31, 2010, when he received a phone call to his parochial house in Cappagh, Omagh, Co Tyrone. Bishop Seamus Hegarty was on the line and said he had some news for him -- and it wasn't going to be pleasant.

"He said he didn't know the full extent of what was going on but allegations were made and he told me to contact the diocesan child safeguarding person," recalls Fr Boland.

"That was a bleak day," he sighs, "it just came out of the blue. It's a priest's worst nightmare.

"I was shell-shocked. I'm sitting in my home on my own. I didn't know what the allegation was, or who was making it.

"You are imagining all sorts of things. When I would hear allegations about others, you always thought 'what would I do if someone came out and made allegations from 20 or 30 years ago and it was their word against yours?'

"And then it happened to me.

"I didn't sleep that night," says Fr Boland.

"I wondered about the possible consequences if I wasn't believed -- having to give up my ministry, which has been my life."

The following day, the name of his accuser was given to him and the details of the allegations against him were made clear.

"I was actually relieved, believe it or not," he says, "because I knew that I had never done anything wrong with regard to this person and I didn't have a case to answer."

For three months he continued his work as a parish priest. No one yet knew about the allegations.

"It was always there in the background and in August, I got a call to tell me the case had progressed, and I met the bishop and I was told I would have to stand down."

It was August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. Fr Boland said Mass and then told his congregation at St Mary's, Killyclogher, that he had something to tell them.

"I told them because of a child safeguarding issue I had to stand down from public ministry," he says with a deep sigh.

"Of course I said I was innocent. It was a very emotional day. There were many tears shed on my part and on their part. The congregation was stunned, absolutely stunned."

As an avid golfer, Ballyliffin Golf Club became something of a retreat for Fr Boland during the storm which followed.

Within two days of telling his parishioners he was stepping aside, the story was on the front page of the Derry Journal and the Irish News.

"I didn't read the papers. I couldn't. But I came to Ballyliffin to play golf that day and I got great support from my fellow priests and many, many parishioners in the days and weeks afterwards. I got three to four hundred cards and letters," he recalls.

Fr Boland was allowed to stay in his parochial house while the investigation progressed. Nevertheless, the next weeks and months proved extremely difficult for him because he was unable to do his normal work in the parish.

To help take his mind off things, he took part in a 112-mile fundraising walk in aid of the St Mary's GAA club.

An interview by officers from the PSNI was soon to follow, though.

'That was a harrowing experience. It was the first time in all my life that I had been interviewed by the police," he says.

"I was shell-shocked. I was devastated. It was a very hostile environment [at Omagh police station]."

A year-long period of limbo followed before the North's Director of Public Prosecutions decided he should go on trial on five counts of indecent assault.

He says there was "an element of relief" when the trial date was set.

"This would give me a chance -- my first chance -- to fight back and give my side of the story," he says.

In June, Derry Crown Court would hear claims Fr Boland inappropriately touched and kissed a young girl at the parochial house in Galliagh, Derry, where she worked on a voluntary basis.

Fr Boland told the court he had no memory and no recollection of the alleged offences, said to have occurred between June 1990 and June 1992.

He said that because of his personality, he might have kissed the complainant on the cheek but never on the lips.

Defence witnesses gave evidence that he was a "warm" person and it was usual for him to greet people with "a kiss and hug", but that there was nothing inappropriate in his behaviour.

After hearing over a week of evidence, a jury of four men and eight women found he had no case to answer.

"It was an answer to prayer," he recalls. "The five 'not guilty' verdicts were read out and the judge said that I could go.

"I could have skipped down the street outside the courthouse. There was an overwhelming feeling of relief -- that I had been heard and I had been vindicated.

"I have been walking on air ever since."

Fr Boland says many parishioners were "extremely angry" at his accuser, but insists he never felt any animosity towards her.

Two months on from the trial, Fr Boland now awaits a call from Rome to give him the go-ahead to return to his priestly duties.

"I'm ruled too by canon law so I'll wait on that. I never questioned my faith. In fact, it kept me going," he says. "I'm looking forward to returning to my public ministry and so are many, many friends."

The storm is almost over for Fr Boland.

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