Suspect priest protected over N.Ireland bombings: probe

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Top officials in the police, government and Catholic Church in Northern Ireland conspired to protect a priest suspected over 1972 bombings that killed nine people, an investigation revealed Tuesday.

Father James Chesney was transferred to the neighbouring Republic of Ireland -- beyond the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland police -- amid fears his arrest over the attacks in Claudy would inflame sectarian tensions at the time.

Nine people were killed and another 30 were injured when three car bombs exploded in the quiet village near Londonderry in 1972, one of the worst years in the three decades of violence known as "The Troubles".

No-one was ever charged with the murders but Chesney has long been suspected as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) militant who masterminded the plot, although the IRA denied responsibility.

An investigation by Northern Ireland's police ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, has now revealed the cover-up that allowed Chesney to escape trial.

It said there was "extensive police intelligence" linking the priest to the IRA and the Claudy attack, and said many police officers wanted to pursue him.

But the report revealed that a senior police officer contacted the British government asking their help, in conjunction with the Catholic Church, to help to "render harmless a dangerous priest".

The then British minister for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway, discussed whether he could be transferred out of the province, a suggestion passed on to police.

Chesney, who died in 1980 aged 46, was moved to Ireland in late 1973.

Although the report's author said there was no suggestion police could have prevented the bombings, he deplored the cover-up.

"The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing," Hutchinson said.

He acknowledged the reasoning for moving the priest, saying: "I accept that 1972 was one of the worst years of the Troubles and that the arrest of a priest might well have aggravated the security situation.

"Equally, I consider that the police failure to investigate someone they suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism could, in itself, have had serious consequences."

A joint statement from Cardinal Sean Brady, the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and Londonderry bishop Seamus Hegarty, said it was "shocking" that a priest could have been involved in the bombing.

"This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney's lifetime," they said.

But they rejected any conspiracy, saying: "The Catholic church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter."

They noted that Chesney denied any involvement when asked about the allegations by a senior churchman.

Hutchinson described the cover-up as "collusion" but said he found no evidence of criminal intent by the church or the government, and said all those involved on the police side who might face investigation were dead.

The current British minister for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, said he was "profoundly sorry" that Chesney was not properly investigated.

The violence in Northern Ireland was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal but sporadic unrest still flares in the province.

© 2010 AFP

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