LONDON (Aug. 24) -- A Catholic priest was behind a series of car bombs that killed nine civilians in a Northern Irish village in 1972 and was subsequently protected from prosecution by a conspiracy involving the church, police and the British government, an investigation has found. The British government today said it was "profoundly sorry" about its role the cover-up, while Northern Ireland's Catholic Church said it accepted the findings, but rejected any claims of a conspiracy. On the morning of July 31, 1972, three vehicles exploded within moments of each other on the main street of Claudy, a village 60 miles northwest of Belfast. The attack, one of the most brutal in the three decades of violence known as "the Troubles," left nine people dead, including an 8-year-old girl, two teenagers and a mother of eight. The victims came from both the Protestant and Catholic communities.
The Rev. James Chesney is shown in an undated file photo. An investigation has revealed details about his involvement in one of Northern Ireland's worst terrorist atrocities, the 1972 bombing of the Northern Irish village of Claudy. No one was ever charged with carrying out the massacre. However, it has long been suspected that the Rev. James Chesney -- who soon after the attack was transferred from his parish in the nearby village of Bellaghy to the Irish Republic, beyond the reach of British prosecutors -- was the Irish Republican Army militant who plotted the attack. At the time, the IRA denied responsibility for the blasts, presumably out of fear that it would lose support from its mainly Catholic supporters. Now a long-awaited investigation by Northern Ireland's police ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, has revealed Chesney's involvement in the mass murder, and the cover-up that allowed him to escape trial.
The report notes that detectives with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which originally led the investigation into the blasts, 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."However, a senior police officer was concerned that the arrest of a priest could fuel further bloodshed between the Protestant and Catholic communities -- 500 people were killed in sectarian violence in 1972, and the province threatened to descend into all-out civil war. So he asked the British government if it would work with the Catholic Church to "render harmless a dangerous priest." As a result, William Whitelaw, the British government's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, contacted the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway, to see if Chesney could be quietly shuffled out of Northern Ireland.
The cardinal accepted that the priest was a "very bad man," and in early 1973 Chesney was ordered to take sick leave and moved to County Donegal in the Irish Republic. He was later questioned by his superiors about the Claudy bombing but denied any involvement. He died of cancer in 1980, when he was 46. Hutchinson, the report's author, wrote that he understood the "context" in which the authorities made their decision, but that it was wrong to allow the killer to go free. "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," he said. "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. "The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing," he added. Cardinal Sean Brady, the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and Derry bishop Seamus Hegarty described the bombing as "an appalling crime" in a joint statement.
However, they placed all blame for Chesney's escape from justice on local police. "This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney's lifetime," they said. "If there was sufficient evidence to link him to criminal activity, he should have been arrested and questioned at the earliest opportunity, like anyone else. "It is thought that Chesney signed up with the IRA in early 1972 after being outraged by the Bloody Sunday massacre in January, when British paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights march in the city of Derry, killing 13 innocent protesters.
But exactly how he came to be involved in an equally bloody atrocity just a few months later isn't clear. His motives may have been explained in a 2002 letter sent to bomb survivor Mary Hamilton by an unknown person going by the name "Father Liam," who claimed to have discussed the bombing with the priest in late 1972. According to this secondhand report -- whose veracity has been questioned, as the writer refers to Chesney's first name as John, not James -- the priest placed bombs in Claudy to take pressure off an IRA brigade in Derry following the collapse of a cease-fire.
Chesney supposedly told "Father Liam" that he had wanted to give advance warnings of the bombs and give people time to clear the streets. However, when the IRA men stopped in the nearby town of Dungiven, they couldn't find a working telephone box. "This horrible affair has been with me now for 30 years, and it has been hanging over me like a black cloud," "Father Liam" wrote. "I must talk to someone in authority before I die. I am an old man now, and I must meet my maker with a clear conscience.
The souls of the deceased are crying out not for vengeance but for justice." And for the relatives of the murdered, that battle for justice is still going on. Mark Eakin -- whose 8-year-old sister Kathryn was cleaning their parents' shop window when a bomb went off, and was killed by a piece of shrapnel that penetrated her brain -- told the BBC, "I think it's ridiculous that [the authorities] can say, 'That's what happened, so be it.'" That day I lost my sister, and I would say I lost 50 percent of my parents because their life was destroyed," he told reporters at a press conference. "
I feel so sorry for the Catholic people who had to listen to that about their own church. They have been let down, and I have been let down by the government I pay my taxes to." Eakin added that the British government could start to atone for its failure to prosecute Chesney by pursuing the other men thought to have been involved in the bombing. "More than an apology, I would like to see somebody brought to justice for this," he said.