The British government and the Catholic Church colluded to protect a priest suspected of involvement in a 1972 bombing in Northern Ireland that killed nine people, an official report said yesterday.
The Police Ombudsman’s report revealed that an Irish cardinal was involved in transferring Father James Chesney out of British-ruled Northern Ireland, highlighting again the role of the Church hierarchy in protecting priests against allegations of criminal activity.
The inquiry showed that then UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw had a private “tete-a-tete” with Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in 1972 in which they discussed the possibility of moving Chesney out of Northern Ireland.
“In the absence of explanation the actions of the senior RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] officers, in seeking and accepting the government’s assistance in dealing with the problem of Father Chesney’s alleged wrongdoing, was by definition a collusive act,” the police ombudsman Al Hutchinson said in a statement. “The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing.”
No one was ever charged or convicted for the triple car bomb attack on the village of Claudy, but the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was assumed to be responsible. Those killed included a nine-year-old-girl and two teenage boys.
Chesney, who was a priest in a neighboring parish, always denied any involvement, although a sniffer dog found traces of explosive in his car when he was stopped at a checkpoint in September 1972. He was transferred to Donegal in the Irish Republic in 1973 and died there in 1980.
The Police Ombudsman’s report showed that the police had intelligence soon after the bombing that Chesney was the head of the IRA in south Derry in 1972, one of the bloodiest years in three decades of sectarian violence.
A senior police officer wrote that, rather than arrest Chesney, “our masters may find it possible to bring the subject into any conversations they may be having with the Cardinal or Bishops at some future date.”
British government documents showed that, at a private meeting with Whitelaw, Conway “said that he knew that the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done. The cardinal mentioned the possibility of transferring him to Donegal,” the report said.