Victims of a notorious paedophile priest who may have abused 400 children over four decades have come forward to tell their story of suffering, and allegations of cover-up by the Catholic Church and collusion with police. Writer at Large Neil Mackay investigates

THE sexual abuse began when Sean Faloon was just 10 years old. It continued every week for seven unrelenting years.

Sean was raped by Father Malachy Finnegan. The priest may have abused up to 400 children over four decades. How did he get away with his crimes for so long? Sean, his lawyer and other victims believe Finnegan may have been a police informer.

The crimes took place in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Victims claim Finnegan was passing intelligence on IRA suspects to the RUC. Police knew about Finnegan’s offending as early as 1996, but didn’t act. Much of Finnegan’s offending took place in areas close to the Irish border, known during The Troubles as ‘Bandit Country’ because of intense IRA activity.

The Herald:

Father Malachy Finnegan


Nearly 20 years ago, Sean fled to Scotland. He could no longer face living in Northern Ireland. “I couldn’t cope. I could feel Finnegan’s hands all over me, the smell of his breath, his voice,” he says. Finnegan often abused Sean in his car. Just the sight of country roads brought memories flooding back. “Scotland is my home now,” he says. Sean, who has lifted his anonymity, lives near Dunkeld.

Sean and Finnegan’s other victims want justice. Some have received compensation from the Catholic Church, but that’s far from enough. Sean and others want anyone in the Catholic Church who was complicit in Finnegan’s crimes arrested and charged. They claim many clergy knew Finnegan was a paedophile while the crimes were happening. They also want the Police Service of Northern Ireland - the RUC’s successor organisation - to reveal whether Finnegan was an informer.

When asked by the Herald on Sunday whether Finnegan was an informer, the PSNI said: “We would neither confirm nor deny.” Given Finnegan is now dead, the police position fuels belief among victims that he passed intelligence while abusing children. Suspicions are heightened as the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ line is often deployed in Northern Ireland regarding known informers, such as the infamous IRA mole Freddie Scappaticci - Agent ‘Stakeknife’ - named by the Herald in 2003.


Much of Sean’s story is too harrowing to print. He doesn’t hide the appalling truth about what Finnegan did. “It happened once a week, every week for seven years. If you do the calculations, that’s at least 350 times that I was abused and raped.” During counselling, Sean’s psychotherapist said the sustained level of abuse made the case one of the worst in Europe.

The abuse began when Sean volunteered as an altar boy at Finnegan’s church. Finnegan discovered Sean was diabetic. “He saw that as a vulnerability.”

Looking back on events, Sean believes Finnegan was fishing for information to pass to police while carrying out abuse. Sean lived in a republican area. Finnegan would ask him questions like “what does your father think about the Troubles? What are your uncles’ interests in the Troubles? Do your uncles get involved? Are your cousins interested? Do they want to join the IRA? Do these people have guns or any links to anybody? He was a priest so I told him the truth: I didn’t know of anybody in my family linked in any way. What would especially prompt questions would be if something happened like a bomb or a shooting.”

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Sean states emphatically that he will makes these statement under oath in court. Sean and other victims believe Finnegan was “building a safety net”. Like Jimmy Savile, who befriended police as well as the rich and powerful, Finnegan is suspected of ingratiating himself with officers in case his offending came to light.

It’s believed Finnegan may have informed on some ‘suspect’ pupils who attended the prestigious Catholic boarding school where he taught. Many of Finnegan’s victims are now in contact with each other as adults.

Sean says others have told him that when they were children, Finnegan also asked about links between their families and the IRA, and on some occasions “their properties were raided and arrests were made in the days following Finnegan being given information. Back then, people were wondering ‘how the hell did the police know your man down the road had guns or IRA membership’.” Today, they realise they spoke to Finnegan shortly before the police operations.

Sean says Finnegan’s behaviour around the police and British army also hinted at collusion. During the Troubles, security forces erected armed checkpoints along roads. Any suspicious or aggressive behaviour at checkpoints was simply not tolerated and would result in people being detained, and heavy-handed searches of cars, drivers and passengers. Sean was often taken on drives by Finnegan and abused. However, at checkpoints, Finnegan would get aggressive with security forces, regularly sticking his head out of the car window and shouting his name at police. Rather than any punishment, Finnegan was waved through checkpoints. Sean recalls officers saying: “Sorry about that, Father, carry on.”


Sean Faloon photographed in Glasgow. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times

Sean Faloon photographed in Glasgow. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times


Sean adds: “It all points to a connection. Why? He must have been a tout.” Tout is Troubles-era slang for informers. When asked directly if he believes the man who raped him was a police informer, Sean replies: “Yes.”

If Finnegan was an informer, there’s a possibility the information he passed could have found its way not just to agencies like MI5 but the desks of British government ministers. “It’s possible the British government was aware Finnegan was a paedophile. We need to be told fairly whether Finnegan was a tout or not. All the information must be shared with us. It’s possible the British government was culpable of protecting paedophiles over vulnerable children.”

Sean says at one point, during the abuse, Finnegan was sent to a Catholic Church facility in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where paedophile priests were “rehabilitated”. Finnegan rang Sean from Stroud using public payphones. Sean could hear traffic, and on some occasions children. This, he says, implies the Church knew Finnegan was a paedophile, but allowed him to remain at large, posing a risk to children.

Finnegan even came to Sean’s house when his parents were out and raped him. In 1996, Sean told police Finnegan abused him. However, as Sean was still a minor, he needed parental consent to take matters further. His family, he says, feared reprisals from within their community if they spoke to police. The PSNI told the Herald on Sunday that Finnegan “first came to police attention in 1996 when a report was received from a male youth. However, the young man did not engage further with police and no complaint was made”. Sean’s lawyer says the police should have pursued the case nonetheless in order to protect vulnerable children.

Sean’s mental health began to deteriorate and he left Northern Ireland at 18. When he returns to Northern Ireland he suffers flashbacks. Even the sight of a Mercedes, the car Finnegan drove, triggers extreme anxiety. Sean had many girlfriends throughout his life but the relationships ended due to his mood swings. “I’ve been single for 14 years. Not even a date. It’s not fair on a woman to get into a relationship with me. I can’t have children if I’m not with someone.”

Sean has no interest in pity, though. “Look on me not as the guy on the receiving end of one of the worst child sex abuse and child rape cases in Europe, but as the guy who’s been through that and not turned to drugs, or alcohol, or spent years in prison. I want to live a normal life like any Joe Bloggs, but I never will because of what I carry with me.”



Like Sean, Tony Gribben was abused by Finnegan and left Northern Ireland. A high-flying EU civil servant, he now lives in Italy. The abuse began when Tony was a first year pupil at St Colman’s College, Newry, which is run by the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Diocese of Dromore. Finnegan taught Latin. “I was immediately targeted by him,” Tony says. Initially, the abuse was physical violence. “He was a monster, a big, big man. I was extremely frightened of him.”


This is Tony Gribben for The Big Read.

This is Tony Gribben for The Big Read.


However, the violence was part of a tactic to “break” Tony. Finnegan then ordered Tony to assist him with mass. This is when the sexual abuse began. Tony was a boarder, and confused with nowhere to turn. However, Tony says that after his first year, Finnegan was sent to work as a curate in Newry, an effective demotion. Tony believes this may be linked to the Catholic Church moving Finnegan because clergy had become aware of his offences. Tony says he has asked the Catholic Church about this event but received “no detail”.

Finnegan returned to the school after two years, as Tony entered fourth year. “That’s when things started getting very serious.” Tony suffered “serious sexual assault”. At one point, Finnegan gave Tony a “love bite”. The mark was seen by another member of school staff, but no action taken. “They were complicit,” Tony says.

The sexual abuse continued until Tony began his O levels. At this point, he sought the protection of the school’s toughest pupils. “The bullies and the thugs,” Tony adds. “It was the only way I could survive. Finnegan started to dislike me. I thought, ‘I’ve done it’. I was no longer the nice little blonde blue eyed boy. I’d started acting up and he hated me. He began accusing me of cheating in exams and did everything to undermine me.”

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The abuse stopped. Tony says he later spoke to a priest who knew Finnegan at the time he was being abused. He asked the priest if he suspected Finnegan was a paedophile. The priest replied: “I did wonder.” Tony asked the priest to appear as a witness in court, but he refused. “It’s a whole cover up,” Tony says. He and Sean were both later awarded damages.

Finnegan’s abuse ruined much of Tony’s life. “You have to live with the fact that a whole part of your life in those very formative years was destroyed. I’m not going to go into details but essentially I didn’t have a personal life.” Both Tony and Sean say victims of paedophile priests are often rejected by their families and communities.



Kevin Winters represents 40 of Finnegan’s victims, with multiple cases on-going, and around 15 settled. He says the police decision to refuse to ‘confirm or deny’ fuels concerns Finnegan was an informer. The policy of neither confirming nor denying “is the traditional preserve on matters of national security linked to the conflict. To shoehorn this into a scenario of historic abuse is wrong, disproportionate and retraumatising. Anecdotal evidence about Finnegan is exacerbated by the stance taken by the state. All the state has to do is say ‘there’s no truth in this, our records disclose nothing of the sort’.”

Winters says Finnegan was seen “interacting and interfacing with members of the security forces in a way that in the 1970s and 80s wouldn’t have been the norm” for a Catholic priest. Northern Ireland was highly polarised. Many members of the Catholic community wouldn’t have fraternised with security forces under any circumstances.

There’s also claims “Finnegan phoned members of the security forces, the police, to give intelligence about pupils to have them arrested”.

The former Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey, told police in 2018 that he was concerned the priest may have been an informer. McAreavey asked police to confirm or deny if Finnegan was an informer.

It’s been suggested Finnegan breached the confidentiality of the confessional box to pass intelligence. Allegedly the first report about Finnegan came to the church in 1994. It’s thought the PSNI didn’t receive a report from the church regarding Finnegan until 2006. Bishop McAreavey resigned after it emerged he celebrated mass alongside Finnegan in 2000. He apologised for officiating at the priest’s 2002 funeral.

Finnegan, Winters says, was an “industrial-scale paedophile”. Finnegan used “violence as part of the grooming process”, then followed this with “contrived affection to disorientate” his victims. Winters says there’s at least 80 to 100 known victims. “But I’d double, triple, quadruple that.” Winters has asked for an official inquiry into the case. An attempt to force the PSNI to confirm or deny that Finnegan was an informer failed in court. “They dug in,” says Winters.

“When you collectively bring all this together, you think ‘hang on, why did he never come to the attention of the authorities?’.” Winters says Finnegan “felt emboldened by church protection”, and there was “evidence of cover up” by the church.


Kevin Winters

Kevin Winters


The Finnegan case echoes the notorious Kincora Boys Home scandal. The Belfast home was the site of serious, organised child abuse. There are long running claims British intelligence exploited the activities of a paedophile ring to extract information on loyalist targets. Amnesty International branded Kincora “one of the biggest scandals of our age”.

Winters described Finnegan as a “people manipulator with perverse charm” who effectively ‘groomed’ many adults so he could carry on abusing children, similar to Jimmy Savile, who sometimes offended in hospitals. Finnegan “ingratiated himself” with police and that may have involved “making phone calls about suspected republican pupils. The more he did that, the more he had an additional layer of protection in the event there were suggestions police where going to come knocking”.

Could police have ‘turned’ Finnegan: used evidence of his crimes to force him to inform? Winters won’t “rule that out”, though says there’s no proof. It’s more likely Finnegan chose to inform to protect himself against possible police investigation.

The Troubles provided the perfect setting for Finnegan to offend. During the conflict, Winters said, the Catholic Church “almost operated like a statelet within the state”. Catholic victims found it “very difficult to come forward to police”, due to the political situation, particularly about offences involving clergy. “Finnegan knew that and exploited it,” Winters adds.

Tony Gribben says: “Northern Ireland was an ideal environment for paedophiles.” He fears instability in developing nations would also attract paedophiles. Many church missionaries have been sent to Africa, he says. “Paedophiles move in at times of crisis.”

Tony adds: “The church was meant to safeguard children. But there were figures in the church who simply didn’t step in to stop Finnegan.” Tony says if the church had stopped Finnegan when he was being abused in the 1970s, later victims like Sean Faloon, who was abused in the 1990s, would have been spared.

Winters paid tribute to both Tony and Sean for their courage in lifting anonymity to speak out. Tony asked for any other victims of paedophile priests to contact the organisation he helped start, the Dromore Group, which advocates for victims.

Winters says some cases which have gone through a redress system with the Catholic Church should have been dealt with in court but victims often fear taking the stand. Under complex proceedings, Tony faced picking up all legal costs if he went go to court and so felt compelled to accept the compensation offered. He says that “further exploits survivors”. Some victims claim to have been “gagged” by the Catholic Church.

Money isn’t important, nor are “apologies, and thoughts and prayers”, says Tony, “it’s justice that matters”. Sean adds: “Compensation is no cure.”



Winters is also suing the church on behalf of victims in relation to Finnegan allegedly being sent to a church ‘rehab’ facility in Stroud. “It shows evidence of cover up,” he says. “Had action been taken at the time, then Sean’s abuse would have stopped and [Finnegan] would have been reported to the authorities and prosecuted [and] held accountable for his crimes.”

Other actions include a case against the PSNI over its “failure to provide information on [Finnegan] and his alleged ‘informant’ status", and a “potential challenge to police over failure to investigate [Finnegan, and] cover up by the church”.

Winters says that in Tony’s case there was an admission of liability and an apology along with compensation. However, the church has never admitted any allegation of cover-up, he says, “as there’s never been a fully fledged open court case”. Winters says police must revisit the case.

“These people could have protected me,” says Sean. “If they had, where would I be living now? In Ireland? Would I be married? Would I have children? But they didn’t protect me. Finnegan was a paedophile and a brute, it was common knowledge.”

“Many people turned a blind eye,” Tony adds. “We know this was covered up by the church.”

Victims of Finnegan now want anyone who allegedly knew about his crime to be arrested, questioned and if necessary charged and convicted under Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act, which makes it an offence to withhold evidence and not disclose a crime. Victims also want the police to own up to whether or not Finnegan was an informer. Tony says that in his case alone, he suspects up to 15 members of the clergy and people connected to St Colman’s school knew he was being abused.

They also want Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Primate of All Ireland tipped to be the next Pope, to resign on the grounds that he carries ultimate responsibility for the behaviour of clergy and church. Church actions have been “immoral”, Sean says.



St Colman’s College, Newry, which is run by the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Diocese of Dromore, where the abuse took place



The PSNI said that in 2006 Finnegan “again came to the attention of police”, adding: “Public Protection Branch detectives carried out a thorough and robust investigation into the circumstances of abuse committed by deceased priest Father Malachy Finnegan and other persons connected to St Colman's College Newry. Nine files were submitted to the PPS [Public Prosecution Service] who subsequently directed no prosecution.”

St Colman’s College referred all inquiries to the Diocese of Dromore. The Diocese passed the inquiries to the Catholic Communications Office, which said: “Following the resignation of the Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey in March 2018, the Police Service of Northern Ireland investigated the circumstances of abuse committed by Fr Malachy Finnegan. The Diocese cooperated fully with this investigation and continues to support any ongoing investigations or inquiries by police or statutory agencies.

“The stated aims of the PSNI investigation in 2018/19 were to establish and take action against any living offender from that time; to determine if there was any other abuse of children committed by any other person, other than Fr Finnegan, at St Colman’s College when Fr Finnegan worked there between the mid/late 1960s to the mid/late 1980s; to ascertain when any authority first became aware of Fr Finnegan’s offending behaviour, what action was taken to ensure adequate safeguarding was implemented, and what information, if any, about his offending was reported to the police service at that time.

“In August 2019, the PSNI concluded the investigation and subsequently submitted nine files to the Public Prosecution Service for consideration. The PPS determined that the Test for Prosecution was not met in relation to those files reported to us by police.

“The Diocese of Dromore has previously apologised unreservedly for the hurt and damage caused to victims and survivors of any priest or church representative acting under its authority. The Diocese of Dromore finds such behaviour towards children and vulnerable people abhorrent, inexcusable and indefensible, and is fully committed to achieving and maintaining best practice in the area of safeguarding young people and vulnerable adults. As well as cooperating fully with police, social services and other statutory agencies, the Diocese follows and implements all safeguarding guidance and practice issued by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“The Diocese has engaged in all civil/legal proceedings issued against it and met its responsibilities regarding compensation of claimants. The Diocese also pastorally supports victims and survivors and signposts them to an independent counselling service established by the Catholic Church in Ireland – the Towards Healing Counselling and Support Service is independent but funded entirely by the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“In 2021 the Diocese implemented a Redress Scheme for those victims and survivors who wish to avail of it. The Redress Scheme is a means by which those who suffered child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy and other church representatives acting under the Diocese’s authority are able to obtain recognition and reasonable compensation without the need for lengthy investigation and litigation.”