Northern Ireland

Cloyne report: Who is John Magee?

Bishop Magee
Image caption Bishop Magee is now living in retirement with a relative in Cork

For years he was at the heart of the Vatican. As personal secretary to three successive popes, John Magee had a position of influence far beyond his clerical grade.

The son of a dairy farmer from just outside Newry, he was a student at St Colman's College before joining the priesthood and heading to the missions in Africa.

On his return he was appointed secretary to Pope Paul VI, and was kept on by his successor Jean Paul I who died after just 33 days in office.

It was the death of Pope John Paul I and the claim by the-then Father John Magee that he had been the first to find him, which thrust him into the spotlight.

That claim was later found out to be incorrect. It was a nun who brought up the Pope's morning coffee who found him dead.

Fr Magee who also worked for John Paul II would have been party to many papal confidences.

Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent for the London Tablet, said: "Bishop Magee has the distinction of being the only man to be private secretary to three different Popes.

"He would have seen everything that came in and out of the papal apartment because the personal secretaries live with the Pope in his quarters and are with them throughout the day."

Mr Mickens described the personal secretary role as "a gatekeeper in many ways".

"They help shape the Pope's schedule and decide who gets in and who doesn't," he added.

While working for Jean Paul II, Fr Magee had a role in the 1981 hunger strike. He was sent by the Vatican to try and resolve the prison protest.


The Bishop's Palace in Cobh near Cork is a long way from the grace and favour apartment in Rome he would have called home, but it was to here that Bishop Magee returned in 1987 to take over the Diocese of Cloyne.

It was not just his mishandling of allegations of clerical sex abuse, at a time when the church's child protection policies required bishops to report them to the Irish police, that led to his downfall.

Matt Ring was a trainee priest in the diocese at the time. He was the subject of unsubstantiated allegations that he had tried to kill his father to benefit from the family will.

Image caption Matt Ring became the subject of unsubstantiated allegations as a trainee priest

The claims became the subject of an on-off 12-year church investigation in which Bishop Magee was involved.

The stress of that led to ill-health and finally forced Mr Ring out of the priesthood. He said, just like the child abuse controversy, Bishop Magee and the rest of the hierarchy, did not know how to deal with a difficult case like his.

"For me, he was totally and utterly inconsistent, there was obviously no systematic policy or procedure in the diocese for dealing with such events," he said.

"Generally, I would think a lot of the people responsible for how it was managed lacked life experience."

Bishop Magee stepped aside from duties in the diocese in March 2009 after an independent report found his Cloyne Diocese had put children at risk of harm.

He responded to the findings of the earlier report carried out by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSC) saying "I take full responsibility for the criticism of our management of issues in that report".

His resignation was accepted by the Pope a year later. He is now living in retirement with a relative in Cork.

His was a glittering career which will be overshadowed by the manner in which it ended.

He made the same mistake as many of his contemporaries, but in his case the church's child protection guidelines were supposedly in place, and he cannot claim he did not know how to respond to the abuse allegations.

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