Cardinal Conway was wrong to send a terrorist priest to another parish

A 1972 photo of the wreckage at Claudy (PA wire)

There is one aspect of the Claudy affair that seems to have been little commented on, perhaps because most commentators have not been practising Catholics. For me, after the bombings themselves, it is almost the most distressing aspect of the whole affair.

The Northern Ireland police ombudsman has just issued a report into the atrocity which took place on July 31 1972 in Claudy, County Derry. Nine people died in the bombings, including two children. The atrocity was almost certainly planned and perhaps actually committed by a Catholic priest, Fr James Chesney.

According to the ombudsman’s report (I quote the BBC): “Police believed Fr James Chesney was an IRA leader and was involved in the bombing. The police, the Catholic Church and the state conspired to cover up a priest’s suspected role in one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland Troubles…. high-level talks led to Fr James Chesney… being moved to the Irish Republic.”

I have no difficulty at all in understanding why they did it: the pejorative word “conspired” is quite out of place. The overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary was seen by the Catholic community as part of the loyalist enemy. I was not a Catholic at the time; but I never found it difficult to understand why they hated the RUC so much. I have an indelible memory of crossing the border from the Republic at the height of the troubles, and being asked to prove my identity and give an account of myself by a machine-gun toting RUC man. It wasn’t the fact that he did this, but the bullying arrogance with which he did it, that stays in my mind.  

If the RUC had arrested a Catholic priest, Northern Ireland would have gone up in flames then (as later on it did): the RUC knew that and wanted to avoid an arrest: so they asked William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to ask Cardinal William Conway to remove him over the border: he agreed. All that seems to me entirely defensible.

But Fr Chesney was then sent to another parish. That’s the bit that I really don’t understand. A man who was almost certainly a mass murderer (Cardinal Conway believed he was “a very bad man”) was sent to a parish to administer the sacraments and give pastoral care to a congregation which was wholly unaware of what their parish priest was believed to have done (imagine discovering now that you had regularly made your confession to such a monster).

What else could Cardinal Conway have done? That is a real question, to which I don’t have any confident answer. Maybe I’m wrong: but surely, if he had suspended Chesney from his priestly functions pending inquiries; and if Chesney had then been arrested in the Republic by the Gardaí and charged with being a member of the IRA, would not that have met the case? Cardinal Brady has rightly said that “the actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney”. That could have happened in the Republic with the discreet co-operation of the RUC, who could have supplied the evidence.

So, why didn’t it?  None of the press coverage so far has inquired into (I will not call him “Father”) Chesney’s new life in that Donegal parish just over the border.  How has all this affected his old parishioners? That worries me.