A Roman Catholic priest who sexually abused a 17-year-old girl in his church had damaged her faith in God and divided a community with his lies, a judge said as he jailed him.
William Finnegan, 60, known as “Father Bill” to his parishioners, was imprisoned for six months when he appeared at Bradford Crown Court yesterday afternoon.
Finnegan was parish priest at St Clare’s RC Church, Fagley, Bradford, when he told the girl he loved her, grabbed her bottom and kissed her passionately on the lips in the church on Easter Sunday last year.
He denied sexual assault, forcing the teenager and her mother to give evidence at his trial.
Finnegan also revealed in court that he had broken his vows of celibacy by secretly marrying Beverley Dawson, a former parishioner, in 1999.
Finnegan, wearing a smart dark suit and patterned tie, showed no emotion as he was led to the cells to begin his sentence yesterday.
His victim and her family were in court and extra seats had to be brought in to find room for members of the church congregation there to support Finnegan.
His barrister, Jeremy Hill-Baker, handed the Recorder of Bradford, Judge Roger Thomas QC, a sheaf of letters and testimonials from past and present parishioners.
He also said Finnegan had made a determined attempt to kill himself with liquid morphine and whisky.
“After decades of exemplary ministry, materially helping the community in which he lived and worked, his ministry is over and his reputation is in ruins,” Mr Hill-Baker said.
Judge Thomas said Finnegan, who was ordained in 1977, had given real and beneficial religious and pastoral support to many parishioners over the years.
But he described the sexual assault as “a very considerable fall from grace”.
Afterwards, Finnegan had also tried to buy the girl’s silence by promising her “a good birthday present”, the jury had heard at his trial.
In a victim impact statement to the court considered by Judge Thomas, the girl said of Finnegan: “He put me through a trial and I had to give evidence. Why did he do that when he is supposed to be a man of God?”
Judge Thomas said Finnegan had committed an enormous breach of trust, undermining not only his victim’s physical well being but also her religious faith and that of her family.
“You’ve also caused real damage to the wider church community, particularly perhaps the Catholic Church, and at a time when such churches can ill afford such damage,” he told him.
Because Finnegan would still not admit his guilt, many people believed he was innocent. His denials meant the girl had faced animosity and felt demoralised by the actions of some parishioners, the court heard.
“You clearly cannot face up to your wrongdoing here, perhaps because of the shame and loss of face,” Judge Thomas told him.
And in criticising parishioners who stood by their shamed former priest, Judge Thomas said: “Maybe some of them would believe the sun would rise in the west tomorrow if he said it.”
Jailing him Judge Thomas accepted that Finnegan had lost his high reputation, his vocation and his livelihood but the only appropriate sentence was one of immediate imprisonment.
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Leeds yesterday expressed its ‘sorrow and regret’ to Mr Finnegan’s 17-year-old victim after the former priest was jailed.
Monsignor John Wilson, Diocesan administrator, said: “Following the sentence of William Finnegan for the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl while parish priest at St Clare’s Church in Bradford, I would once again like 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 and I hope that this sentence will help in the healing process. My thoughts and prayers are with you and my door is always open.
“The Diocese is committed to ensuring the safety and protection of every child and vulnerable person in our parishes and there are robust safeguarding policies and procedures in operation throughout this Diocese – and indeed the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
“As with this case, any abuse reported to the Diocese is referred to the police and other relevant authorities and the Diocese of Leeds cooperated fully with police throughout this case.
“If anyone has any concerns at all relating to this matter, please contact the Diocesan safeguarding coordinator.”
Jail for Catholic priest who sexually abused teenage girl