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Cardinal: Church did not cover up role of ‘terrorist’ priest

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson holds his report into the 1972 Claudy bombings (Photo: AP)

Cardinal Seán Brady has denied a “cover-up” after an investigation concluded that the Church conspired with the Government and police to relocate a priest suspected of one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

The NI Police Ombudsman revealed that Fr James Chesney, a suspect in a 1972 bombing that killed nine people, was moved to the Irish Republic in a secret deal.

But the Archbishop of Armagh said the Church was not involved in a cover up.

“The Church was approached by the secretary of state at the instigation of senior members of the RUC,” Cardinal Brady said. “Furthermore, the Church subsequently reported back to the secretary of state the outcome of its questioning of Fr Chesney into his alleged activities. The actions of Cardinal [William] Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney.”

Terrorists detonated three car bombs in the centre of Claudy, a village in Co Londonderry. Although no paramilitary organisation ever claimed responsibility, the Provisional IRA were believed to be responsible for the attack. But it was also rumoured locally that Fr Chesney, who died in 1980 of cancer, was involved.

In 2002, the Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, began a probe into the original investigation. His report found that detectives in 1972 had concluded that Fr Chesney was an IRA leader and had been involved in the bombing.

He said that by agreeing to a deal between the Government and the Church to move Fr Chesney to a parish in the Irish republic, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was guilty of a “collusive act”.

He said this had compromised the investigation and the decision “failed those who were murdered, injured or bereaved” in the bombing.

Mr Hutchinson said some detectives’ attempts to pursue Fr Chesney were frustrated ahead of a meeting between Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw and the leader of Ireland’s Catholics, Cardinal Conway, in which the move was agreed. The RUC’s Chief Constable, Sir Graham Shillington, was made aware of this decision.

Fr Chesney denied involvement in terrorist activities to his superiors and was never arrested. It is thought the authorities believed that Fr Chesney’s arrest at the time, during the worst year of the troubles, in which 476 people were killed, would push the province into civil war.

Five Catholics and four Protestants were killed in the attack, including an eight-year-old girl and two teenage boys. The youngest victim, Kathryn Eakin, was cleaning the windows of her family’s grocery store at the time.