Brought to justice: Father Tony McSweeney, 68, lied and lied for decades
- SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Father Tony McSweeney
- ‘The priest’ would always try to kiss and fondle the boys
- The Church had the chance to protect the children from him
- He hired a rent boy for sex, then claimed he was his godson
Father Tony McSweeney chalked up a number of notable additions to his CV during a lifetime supposedly devoted to the service of children and God.
He said Mass at Norwich City Football Club at the request of its celebrity cook owner Delia Smith, and conducted the marriage of world heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno.
He also received the prestigious Silver Acorn for decades of ‘dedication’ to the global Scout movement and his co-authorship of its official songbook.
Last week, he even boasted of being the ‘world expert’ on organising campfire get-togethers.
But now he must add a chilling new entry to his list of achievements: he has become the first paedophile to be tried and convicted after being linked to allegations of a VIP ring based at an infamous South London guesthouse who preyed on boys from a nearby care home.
And unless police make further progress with their investigations, he could well be the last.
For decades — culminating in his trial and conviction at Southwark Crown Court on Friday — McSweeney, 68, lied and lied.
He broke criminal laws, childcare rules, the bond of trust between priest and congregation and his priestly vows of celibacy, sometimes in the most disgusting fashion.
His offending, as far as we know, goes back to the Seventies when, while training for the priesthood, he worked as a part-time carer at a local authority-run home for vulnerable boys in Grafton Close, Richmond-upon-Thames.
He was given the job by the manager, his ‘good friend’ — and fellow predator — John Stingemore.
McSweeney was finally caught when, more than 30 years later, police launched an investigation into historic allegations that Grafton Close boys had been sent to Elm Guest House, a gay hotel in nearby Barnes, to be sexually abused.
The list of alleged abusers included Cabinet ministers and MPs, diplomats, spies, policemen, judges, pop stars and staff of the Royal Households.
Detectives are satisfied that the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith, a known but unpunished abuser of boys during his long political career, was one visitor to the guest-house.
As the Mail revealed in 2013, one of the Grafton Close boys, Peter Bornshin, had been so traumatised by his experiences that he later committed suicide.
McSweeney’s conviction last week for offences of indecent assault of a minor and making indecent images of children confirms his four decades as a known, active paedophile, most of which he spent in positions of authority over children and young people.
Yet following his trial and an investigation by this newspaper, a number of disturbing questions remain.
One in particular should be addressed by the Roman Catholic Church, whose image in recent years has been severely damaged by revelations of widespread paedophile abuse by clergy and cover-ups by the hierarchy.
It is this: why in 1998, when McSweeney had just been thrown out of an Essex parish after a cleaner found a video that she believed to show under-age gay sex, did two bishops agree he should almost immediately be given a posting to another diocese, where his history was unknown to the congregation?
As we shall see, at least one Catholic layperson who became aware of the reason for McSweeney’s sudden departure from Essex was shocked when, by chance, he found that the priest had been ‘recycled’ to another part of the country as though nothing had happened.
We can also reveal that one of those bishops behind that decision went on to be the longest-serving English Catholic prelate of modern times.
The other, whom McSweeney described in court last week as his ‘friend’, has risen to become the current Archbishop of Southwark, one of the most senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. The scandal — for that is what it seems — touches no fewer than three dioceses.
For a decade before he took holy orders in 1978, McSweeney was a warden at Britain’s then largest Scout camp, in Waltham Abbey, Essex.
One can make an educated guess at the motives behind his desire to spend time in the great outdoors with adolescent boys.
Indeed, the court heard that in 1976 he approached a boy in a shower block at a Scout retreat and told him to ‘wash under the foreskin’.
When the boy reported it to another warden, he was told not to ‘be so stupid and make trouble’ — and no charge was ever brought.
Two years later, McSweeney joined St John’s Roman Catholic seminary near Guildford. The professor of canonical law at St John’s during the four years he spent there was the future Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith.
McSweeney told the court that around the same time and ‘by the grace of God and the favour of John Stingemore’, he got the part-time job as a carer at the Richmond care home Stingemore was managing.
McSweeney, who will be sentenced on March 27, had met Stingemore in 1970. The court heard that after they started working at the care home, they took Grafton Close boys on holiday together.
The two men also travelled to Amsterdam, visiting sex shops in the red-light district. Shortly after that trip, the pair sat in Stingemore’s flat at Grafton Close and watched a film featuring sex acts involving boys as young as ten.
The court heard the boys at the care home knew McSweeney as ‘the priest’, and that abuse happened ‘almost all the time’ when he stayed over at the home. He would try to kiss them or fondle their genitals, and he made them sit on his lap.
John Stingemore was eventually dismissed — it is not clear exactly when — after the authorities learned he had taken indecent photographs of boys in his care.
When this happened, McSweeney dropped all contact with him. By then, McSweeney had been ordained into the priesthood and was working in the diocese of Brentwood. The bishop was Thomas McMahon, who held the post for 34 years until retiring last year.
McSweeney was moved around the diocese – he later claimed that his role was as a ‘troubleshooter’ for the bishop – before becoming parish priest of St Peter’s in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in 1997.
But it would prove a short-lived appointment. McSweeney had been there for only a year when his housekeeper looked in a bedside drawer and found sex toys, bondage equipment and videos.
The woman, who was a policeman’s daughter and the mother of adolescent boys, played one of the videos on the presbytery’s television.
In the brief scene she watched, two youths she thought to be as young as 14 were engaged in penetrative sex.
She phoned the police and told them what she had seen. But because she wished to remain anonymous, they did not follow up the complaint, she told the court during McSweeney’s trial.
She then took the matter straight to the diocesan authorities, but ‘wasn’t very satisfied’ by their response.
They admitted that they knew McSweeney was gay, she said, but implied she had misjudged the ages of the boys in the film.
Indeed, in court, McSweeney claimed the youths were ‘Twinks’ — gay slang for 18 to 25-year-olds — who looked younger than they actually were.
This newspaper was told by another lay source in the parish that the diocese’s initial reaction was ‘Oh no, not again. He promised not to…’ which suggests they were aware of his predilection for gay pornography.
The video was found on a Friday and McSweeney had gone from the parish before Sunday Mass, a source told the Mail.
And so, almost two decades after what we now know to be McSweeney’s first serious offending, at the Grafton Close care home, the Church was given the chance to curtail his activities and protect not only its own image but youngsters with whom McSweeney came into contact.
McSweeney told the court that in the aftermath of his housekeeper’s discovery, he was ‘effectively banished’ by Bishop McMahon.
But instead of facing disciplinary procedures and the possibility of being laicised — the Catholic version of defrocking — he simply went to live with ‘various friends’ and had what he called a ‘breakdown’.
Then, as he explained to the court, he phoned ‘a friend who was [another] bishop. He accepted everything that happened. He spoke to my bishop’.
Though it is not clear who this other bishop was, within months McSweeney was back in office, in the parish of St George’s, Norwich, in the diocese of East Anglia.
At the time, the Bishop of East Anglia was Peter Smith, McSweeney’s old professor at seminary in Guildford.
Three years ago: In the febrile atmosphere that followed the eruption of the Jimmy Savile (pictured) scandal, old allegations about abuse by well-known figures at Elm Guest House were revived
The disgraced priest’s resurrection came as a surprise to a Catholic layperson from McSweeney’s former diocese in Brentwood, who had good reason to remember him well.
One evening the year before, this layperson had gone to the St Peter’s presbytery to get the keys for the church hall.
When McSweeney opened the door, he threw the keys in the man’s face and told him to ‘f*** off’.
Might he have been doing something that made him particularly keen not to be disturbed?
The parishoner recalls: ‘It was the strangest blessing I’ve ever had from a priest.’
It was shortly after this incident that McSweeney was booted out in disgrace. A few months later, the same Essex parishioner attended a conference for Catholic professionals, held in Norwich. The guest speaker was none other than Tony McSweeney. His subject? The joys of Scouting.
‘I could not believe what I was seeing,’ says the source.
McSweeney prospered in Norfolk. He became chaplain and governor of a school.
He rubbed shoulders with local celebrities — hence, presumably, his invitation from Delia Smith, the Catholic cookery writer, to say Mass at Norwich football club, where she and her husband are majority shareholders.
McSweeney also took children on pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, and continued to burnish his Scouting profile.
Then, three years ago, the Jimmy Savile scandal erupted as a welter of accusations against the former DJ emerged. In the febrile atmosphere that followed, old allegations about abuse by well-known figures at Elm Guest House were revived.
Having seen the coverage in newspapers, the court heard, one of Tony McSweeney’s former victims from Grafton Close, now in his 50s, decided to come forward.
Fully 15 years after the Catholic Church had simply moved McSweeney to another diocese, police from Operation Fernbridge — investigating events at Elm Guest House — raided his Norwich presbytery.
They found on his laptop thousands of recently downloaded pornographic images, including the most serious category of paedophilia. Forensic examination showed that he often used the keyword ‘boy’ when searching for porn.
The judge in his trial refused the defence’s request to have these offences separated from the historic paedophile assaults at Grafton Close. They were all of a part.
In the witness box, McSweeney continued to lie and deny. Morbidly obese and not wearing a clerical collar, he cut a pathetic figure, weeping theatrically while giving his evidence.
But they were crocodile tears. In an extraordinary passage, McSweeney was asked by his own counsel to explain one of the many portrait photographs of adolescents or young men which the police had found in his home.
It was a picture of his ‘godson’, the priest told the court fondly.
This lie was exploded by the prosecuting counsel. A large number of other images of the same male, this time naked, had been found on a CD in the presbytery. They had been taken in a Paris hotel room.
The ‘godson’ was, in fact, an Italian rent boy whom McSweeney had paid for sex. It wasn’t a lie, McSweeney argued pathetically: ‘godson’ was merely ‘shorthand’ for the ‘pastoral care’ he had given the male prostitute.
Much as the conviction of this dangerous man is a victory for the authorities, McSweeney may prove to be the only catch for Operation Fernbridge.
John Stingemore — former manager of the Grafton Close care home — was charged with similar offences, but died just weeks before the trial.
What then of the Church’s role in failing to act decisively against McSweeney? Earlier this year, Pope Francis issued an apology to victims of clerical sex abuse and asked for forgiveness.
Yet commentators observed that Vatican officials remained reluctant to act against bishops accused of orchestrating cover-ups.
One irony of the McSweeney case is that, prior to his current position, Archbishop Peter Smith — McSweeney’s old friend from the Guildford seminary — had been promoted from East Anglia to head the archdiocese of Cardiff. The previous incumbent in Wales had stood down amid claims he ignored ‘warnings about paedophile priests in the archdiocese’.
Archbishop Smith was tasked with restoring the Welsh Church’s reputation, and declared he ‘wanted to help people bind up the wounds and bring healing’. This was three years after McSweeney had been given a new post in Smith’s East Anglia diocese.
This newspaper contacted the archbishop’s office about McSweeney’s claims of friendship, but inquiries were redirected to his former diocese of East Anglia.
In a statement, that diocese claimed: ‘The incident involving the video tapes in Fr McSweeney’s possession [in Brentwood, Essex] … was not investigated by the police on the grounds that they were not illegal. At that time, no allegations of child abuse had been made against Fr McSweeney.
‘The possession of such tapes was regarded by the Church as a matter of clergy discipline.’
The Diocese of Brentwood and its former head, Bishop McMahon, were asked by the Mail about their role in the affair. The diocese responded: ‘(After) the discovery of these videos in 1998, Fr McSweeney was offered therapy and counselling.
‘He then decided to leave the diocese, and some time later sought an appointment in the Diocese of East Anglia. Following consultations between the two bishops, he was allowed to take up a post in that diocese.’
There is no doubt the conviction of Father Tony McSweeney has seen a predatory man brought to justice. But the feeling remains that many others who abused boys at Elm Guest House and elsewhere have got away with their crimes scot-free.