The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has insisted that it did not cover up the suspected involvement of a terrorist priest following the release of a damning report into the Claudy bombing.
In a joint statement, the Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Sean Brady and Bishop of Derry Seamus Hegarty said they accepted the findings and conclusions of the report released today by Al Hutchinson, Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman.
Nine people were killed when three car bombs exploded in the small town of Claudy, Co Londonderry, in 1972.
A senior officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) admitted to the then secretary of state William Whitelaw that he feared civil unrest would ensue if he arrested the suspected mastermind of the attacks, Fr James Chesney.
The priest was transferred to a parish in Co Donegal following talks between Whitelaw and the then head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway.
Fr Chesney has always been a key suspect in the bombing but was never questioned or charged and died in 1980 at the age of 46.
Mr Hutchinson said: “With regard to the role of the Catholic Church, when informed of the level of concerns others had about one of their priests, they challenged Fr Chesney about his alleged activities, which he denied. In the course of this enquiry the Police Ombudsman’s investigation found no evidence of any criminal intent on the part of any Church official.”
He questioned, however, whether it had been right of the Government and the Catholic Church to agree to police inaction over the priest’s role.
"The morality or 'rightness' of the decision taken by the Government and the Catholic Church in agreeing to the RUC request is another matter entirely and requires further public debate.
"Placing this information in the public domain in a transparent manner enables that debate to take place," said Mr Hutchinson.
Cardinal Brady and Bishop Hegarty said it was “shocking” that a priest could be a suspect in such an attack and that the case should have been “properly investigated and resolved during Fr Chesney’s lifetime”.
“If there was sufficient evidence to link him to criminal activity, he should have been arrested and questioned at the earliest opportunity, like anyone else,” they said.
“We agree with the police ombudsman that the fact this did not happen failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombings.”
They said that at the time, the Church reported to the secretary of state that they had questioned Fr Chesney and that he had denied any involvement.
“The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter,” they said. “The actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney.”
The report also condemned the failure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to properly investigate Fr Chesney.
Mr Hutchinson said: "I consider that the police failure to investigate someone they suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism could, in itself, have had serious consequences.
"In the absence of explanation the actions of the senior RUC officers, in seeking and accepting the Government's assistance in dealing with the problem of Father Chesney's alleged wrong doing, was by definition a collusive act.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said the Government was “profoundly sorry” that Fr Chesney’s involvement in the atrocity had never been properly investigated.
Cardinal Brady and Bishop Hegarty said the bereaved and injured deserved to know the truth. They called upon anyone with information to contact police.
They concluded: “It is only with honesty and bravery that we as a community can address these painful issues and do our best to ensure that the dreadful lessons of the past are learned and never repeated.”
Church denies Claudy bombing cover-up
Published 24 August 2010 | Jenna Lyle