Father Robert Mackenzie: Abuse charges against retired priest dropped

By David Cowan
Home affairs correspondent, BBC Scotland

Published
Image caption,
Fr Robert MacKenzie moved to Canada after teaching at the Fort Augustus Abbey School

Scotland's prosecution service has dropped its case against an 87-year-old retired priest extradited from Canada on historical child abuse charges.

Father Robert Mackenzie had been accused of committing offences at two Catholic boarding schools.

The 18 charges involved allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

They were said to have taken place at Fort Augustus Abbey in the Highlands and Carlekemp Preparatory School in East Lothian between 1955 and 1988.

Fr Mackenzie had denied the allegations.

The alleged victims have been told there has been a change in circumstances in the case and senior Crown lawyers decided there should be no further proceedings.

One of the complainers, David Walls, asked for the decision to be reviewed but it was upheld and the charges against Fr Mackenzie have been withdrawn.

Mr Walls said: "My gut reaction is very complex. Disappointment, to put it mildly.

"I'm disappointed in the justice system, because justice isn't about putting criminals behind bars, as much as it is for delivering the truth for the victims of the alleged crimes.

"That truth is extremely important, in this case in particular because it reflects on the integrity of the whole structure of the Catholic church.

"There has been huge cover up, not only in this country but across the globe and to dismiss this case simply makes it easier for those in authority to bury it."

Image caption,
Some of the offences allegedly took place at Fort Augustus Abbey

Born in Edinburgh, Fr Mackenzie taught at Carlekemp during two spells between the 1950s and 1970s, and was a teacher and housemaster at Fort Augustus between 1977 and 1988.

He left Scotland for Canada, and worked in Saskatchewan before retiring.

Prosecutors at the Crown Office were granted a petition warrant for his arrest in 2017 and began extradition proceedings.

Fr Mackenzie denied the allegations but the extradition was approved by Canada's Minister of Justice and the retired priest was sent to Scotland to stand trial in 2020.

He was held in custody for 13 months before he was released on bail in March 2021.

In a statement, the Crown Office said it would not be appropriate to give its reasons for dropping the charges "to respect the rights of all of those involved in the case."

The prosecution service said "such decisions are based on confidential information, for example relating to essential witnesses".

The procurator fiscal for High Court sexual offences Fraser Gibson said: "This has been a complex investigation and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service appreciates that it has been a difficult time for all those involved.

"Following a detailed review of the facts and circumstances of the case, proceedings are now at an end."

'Cost and convenience'

The BBC understands that Fr Mackenzie's health and the time he has already spent in custody were also factors in the decision.

David Walls had alleged that the priest struck him over the head with a ruler, drawing blood, when he was a pupil at Carlekemp.

"I feel very sorry for the man himself. No doubt he's going through a huge trauma and at his age that can't be very pleasant," said Mr Walls.

"I take no pleasure in that but my feeling is that what the justice system is considering here above all else is cost and convenience over getting at the truth, which is what justice is supposed to be about."

Allegations that children suffered sexual and physical abuse at Fort Augustus and Carlekemp first emerged in a BBC documentary in 2013. Both schools closed decades ago.

The programme led to a police investigation and was a major factor in the Scottish Government's decision to hold a public inquiry into the historic abuse of children in care.

The judge presiding over the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry later concluded that Fort Augustus and Carlekemp had been "havens for paedophiles where they had easy access to their chosen victims." Lady Smith said children had also suffered brutal physical abuse at both schools.

Two former priests who worked at Fort Augustus have been convicted in the courts.

Father Denis Alexander was extradited from Australia and jailed for four years and five months for indecency against two boys.

Father Benedict Seed was fined £1,000 for physically assaulting a pupil at the school.

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