ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Rev. Desmond McGrath was known for his dedication to workers rights and his passion for bringing social justice to rural outport communities in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The well-know Roman Catholic priest, who co-founded a union for fishermen, was found dead in his home in Stephenville on Tuesday, a day after he failed to appear in court on four charges of sexual assault.

Police do not suspect foul play.

The charges involve allegations dating back to 1982 involving a boy who would have been 11 years old at the time. An RCMP spokesman said the complainant came forward in recent years.

For long-time friend Richard Cashin, the allegations do nothing to change his memory of McGrath, who was 74.

"I was absolutely devastated by the news and think he was a great man," Cashin said in an interview.

"I remember him as a very committed person" said Cashin, who described his friend as a disciple Moses Coady, a Catholic priest who believed in education and a co-operative approach to poverty.

Cashin said both he and McGrath were inspired by the "spark of the social gospel" as students at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., in the 1950s.

Ten years after leaving St. Francis Xavier, McGrath contacted Cashin about starting an organization that became the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union. It grew to be the largest fishermen's association in North America.

"Des was instrumental ... he was a parish priest but on his days off he went around and helped organize," said Cashin. "He made a tremendous contribution."

The union successfully lobbied for collective bargaining rights for self-employed fishermen, which Cashin said was a first in North America.

McGrath was an adviser for the union and in the mid-80s. He took a leave of absence from his diocese to take a more active role.

Cashin said McGrath wanted to improve education opportunities for fishermen and worked for better health and safety.

"He pioneered the concept that fish harvesting was a profession, the same as an electrician or a doctor, not just an employer of last resort," he said.

Newfoundland Fisheries Minister Tom Hedderson wouldn't comment on the charges McGrath faced, but spoke about the impact he had on the province.

"He certainly will be remembered for that selfless input and the determination that he had in making sure that the fishers of Newfoundland and Labrador got what they deserved," he said in a telephone interview.

"He wanted to bring professionalism into the industry and he was high on education. His legacy lives on." said Hedderson. "The effects on rural Newfoundland and Labrador were absolutely tremendous. (The union) kept communities going."

Cashin said he wasn't aware that charges had been laid this year.

He said McGrath had told him about a previous investigation where charges had not been laid. McGrath was devastated by the allegations, Cashin said.

McGrath had honorary degrees from St. Francis Xavier and Memorial University in St. John's. He was named an officer in the Order of Canada in 2003 and received a Canadian Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year award for 2005.

Four years after retiring from the priesthood, he ran for the NDP in the district of Random-Burin-St. Georges in the 2004 federal election, coming in second with 33 per cent of the vote.

"He will be missed dearly by everyone he has touched in his many years of committed work to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said in a statement.

A spokesman for Michael said the Newfoundland party leader would have no further comment beyond what was in her statement.

Funeral services will be held Friday in Corner Brook, N.L.