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Catholic priest shielded from prosecution for bombing in Northern Ireland

Catholic World News - August 24, 2010

A Catholic priest was a prime suspect in a terrorist bombing in Northern Ireland in 1972, but his role was never fully investigated because of a “collusive act” between law-enforcement officials and Church leaders, according to a report released on August 24.

Al Hutchinson, the police ombudsman for Nothern Ireland, issued a 26-page report on the bombing that took place in Claudy on July 31, 1972, and the subsequent handling of suspicions involving the late Father James Chesney.

Nine people died in the Chesney bombing, and 30 were injured; it was one of the bloodiest incidents in the long history of violence now known as “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. Father Chesney, a young priest who was then serving in County Derry, soon emerged as a main suspect.

But after a December 1972 meeting between the British government’s Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw, and Cardinal William Conway of Armagh, the suspected priest was transferred to a new assignment in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland—beyond the reach of police in Northern Ireland. The investigation into the Claudy bombing subsequently petered out, the ombudsman report observed. Father Chesney died in Donegal in 1980.

The ombudsman decried the quiet handling of Father Chesney as a “collusive act” and an injustice to those who died at Claudy. Owen Paterson, the currently Secretary for Nothern Ireland, said that the government is “profoundly sorry” for failing to follow up with the investigation of the priest.

In his ombudsman’s report, Hutchinson said that the possibility of transferring Father Chesney to a new assignment outside Northern Ireland was discussed during Cardinal Conway’s meeting with Secretary Whitelaw. His report cited a memo indicating that the cardinal “knew that the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done.”

The ombudsman’s report does not allege any illegal act by Cardinal Conway or any other Church official. Officials in Northern Ireland never charged Father Chesney with any crime in connection with the Claudy bombing. Although the record shows that the priest made numerous trips into Northern Ireland after his transfer, making it possible for authorities there to arrest him.

In a statement released in response to the ombudsman’s report, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh accepted Hutchinson’s findings. Referring to the Claudy bombing as “an appalling crime,” he said: “This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney’s lifetime.”

However, the cardinal added: “The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter.” Police officials were responsible for investigating the case, he pointed out; the Church did not interfere with the prosecution. More recently, he said: “All known material in the possession of the Catholic Church has been made available to the Ombudsman.”

Cardinal Brady went on to say that he was appalled by the idea that a Catholic priest would have been involved in the bombing. He said:

Throughout the Troubles, the Catholic Church, along with other Churches in Northern Ireland, was constant in its condemnation of the evil of violence. It is therefore shocking that a priest should be suspected of involvement in such violence.

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