“The Cardinal said that he knew that the priest was a very bad man…”

The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchison, has published the findings of his “investigation into how the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) dealt with their suspicions that a Catholic priest was allegedly involved in the bombing of Claudy in County Londonderry on 31 July 1972, in which nine people were killed and more than 30 others were injured.”  The full report is available here [pdf file].  BBC report here.  From the Police Ombudsman’s statement

The Police Ombudsman’s Office has confirmed that following the bombing police held extensive Intelligence and other material, which they received from a variety of sources, from which they concluded that the priest was the IRA’s Director of Operations in South Derry and was alleged to have been directly involved in the bombings and other terrorist incidents.

The Police Ombudsman has concluded that this Intelligence picture should have led police to pursue further investigative opportunities, which could either have implicated the priest in the bombings or eliminated him from their enquiry.

The Police Ombudsman investigators spoke to a former Special Branch detective, who said that he had wanted to arrest Father Chesney in the months after the bombing but that this had been refused by the Assistant Chief Constable Special Branch , who had advised that ‘matters are in hand’.

The Police Ombudsman’s investigators have examined correspondence, in which the ACC wrote to the NIO on 30 November 1972 saying that he had been considering “what action, if any, could be taken to render harmless a dangerous priest, Father Chesney..’ and suggesting that ‘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…..”

A NIO official wrote back to the RUC on 6 December 1972, saying that the Secretary of State had held a meeting with the Cardinal the previous day, noting “You will be relieved to hear the Secretary of State saw the Cardinal privately on 5 December and gave him a full account of his disgust at Chesney’s behaviour. The Cardinal 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…..”

This correspondence was then circulated to a number of senior police officers, including the then Chief Constable, Sir Graham Shillington, who noted: “Seen. I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary” .

An entry in Cardinal Conway’s diary for 5 December 1972 confirms that the meeting with the Secretary of State took place. It records that he had a “rather disturbing tete-a-tete at the end about C”.

An additional entry in the Cardinal’s diary on 4 February 1973 refers to a private conversation between the two men, during which the matter had been discussed again. The Cardinal recorded that he had spoken to the priest’s ‘superior’ and that “The Superior however had given him orders to stay where he was on sick leave until further notice. “

Father Chesney was subsequently appointed to a parish in County Donegal in late 1973. He was never again appointed to a parish in Northern Ireland. Church records indicate that when questioned by his superiors he denied involvement in terrorist activity. As a result of the course of action police had taken, his denial was never tested. He died in 1980.

And from his ‘Conclusions’

Mr Hutchinson said that he accepted that the decisions made by those referred to in this Statement must be considered in the context of the time.

“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.

In the absence of explanation the actions of the senior RUC officers, in seeking and accepting the Government’s assistance in dealing with the problem of Father Chesney’s alleged wrong doing , was by definition a collusive act.

However, collusion may or may not involve criminality. My role in this matter as Police Ombudsman is to investigate police criminality or misconduct. The key police decision makers referred to in this Statement are deceased. Had they been alive today their actions would have demanded explanation which would have been the subject of further investigation,” he said.

As regards the role of Church and State officials, Mr Hutchinson said that his investigation found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of any Government Minister or official or on the part of any official of the Catholic Church.

Mr Hutchinson went on to say , “The morality or ‘rightness’ of the decision taken by the Government and the Catholic Church in agreeing to the RUC request is another matter entirely and requires further public debate. Placing this information in the public domain in a transparent manner enables that debate to take place.”

Adds The Guardian has an updating blog on the report.

Update  Statement by NI Secretary of State, Owen Paterson.

The PSNI have expressed their regret that opportunities to arrest and interview all of the suspects were not taken in 1972.

For my part, on behalf of the Government, I am profoundly sorry that Father Chesney was not properly investigated for his suspected involvement in this hideous crime, and that the victims and their families have been denied justice.

In the course of their investigations both the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman have conducted enquiries with the Department. I can confirm that the Department’s files have been extensively searched and that all relevant documents were provided to the Ombudsman.

The only document referring to discussions about Father Chesney is the letter of 6th December 1972 quoted in the Ombudsman’s report.

And from Cardinal Sean Brady

We acknowledge the finding of the Police Ombudsman that: ‘With regard to the role of the Catholic Church, when informed of the level of concerns others had about one of their priests, they challenged Fr Chesney about his alleged activities, which he denied. In the course of this enquiry the Police Ombudsman’s investigation found no evidence of any criminal intent on the part of any Church official’.

The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter.

As the Ombudsman finds in his statement today the Church was approached by the secretary of state at the instigation of senior members of the RUC.

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 Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney.