Priest’s rumored involvement in IRA bombings revisited in lawsuit against Derry diocese

Claudy bombing memorial Claudy bombing memorial statue created by sculptor Elizabeth McLaughlin/ Bjmullan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the Northern Ireland government and police agreed to settle a lawsuit with several families of victims of a bombing during The Troubles, the Diocese of Derry remains a defendant in contested claims that it aided in a cover-up by transferring a priest suspected, but never arrested, in the bombing.

The lawsuit has prompted statements of compassion for the victims’ families, but also questions about whether there is sound evidence for their claims.

Three bombs exploded without warning on July 31, 1972 in the County Derry village of Claudy, killing nine people and injuring more than 30. At a time of tense conflict between predominantly nationalist Catholics and predominantly pro-United Kingdom Protestants, the bombing’s victims included people of both religions.

No one has been charged in the attack and no group claimed responsibility, though the Irish Republican Army was widely blamed.

Without admitting liability, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office agreed to pay civil claims to relatives of three of the victims as well as their legal costs, said their legal representatives KRW Law. The three victims were William Watson Temple, 16; David Miller, 60; and James McClelland, 64.

The lawsuit charges that Catholic Diocese of Derry collaborated with state officials in transferring Father James Chesney, an outspoken republican priest who died of cancer in 1980. Church superiors had questioned him about his alleged involvement in the bombings, which he denied. The trial could take place next year.

Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic, told CNA on Sept. 16 that he hoped 

“I certainly hope the settlement from the British government and the Police Service of Northern Ireland goes some way to helping the families know that the loss of their loved ones and the ongoing suffering is acknowledged by the civil authorities who have acknowledged that they ought to have done more to bring the perpetrators of the bombing to justice,” Kelly told CNA Sept. 16.

“When it comes to the diocese and the alleged role of the late Fr. James Chesney, if police suspected Fr Chesney of the atrocity, they should have arrested him,” he added. “It is clear that when questioned by the Church authorities about the rumors of his involvement, Fr. Chesney denied this. What was the diocese to do if the police were – as it appears – not confident enough of Fr. Chesney’s guilt to arrest him?”

In 2010, a police ombudsman report said detectives had intelligence and information that pointed to Chesney’s participation in the bombing, but they decided not to pursue this investigation. 

According to the report, then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw and then-Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland Cardinal William Conway discussed the priest’s alleged IRA activities, and discussed transferring him across the border to Donegal. Chesney was later transferred and was never again assigned to Northern Ireland.

Police drew on intelligence and other material from a variety of sources, and concluded that Chesney was the IRA’s Director of Operations in South Derry and allegedly was directly involved in the bombings and other acts of terrorism. This intelligence presented “significant investigative opportunities” which should have led police to further investigate, and either implicate the priest or eliminate him as a suspect, the 2010 report said.

A senior officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary - the predecessor to Northern Ireland’s police service - had sought the government’s assistance to engage the Catholic Church to render the priest harmless. This “was wrong and compromised the investigation,” said the ombudsman report. A former special branch detective reportedly told ombudsman investigators he had wanted to arrest the priest in the months after the bombing, but that this request was refused. He was told the matter was being taken care of.

The ombudsman report said there was “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.” It also acknowledged that key individuals in the case are deceased, and cannot explain or defend their decisions or actions.

The role of the Catholic Church in this matter is a key area of debate.

“The failure to question him [Chesney] or pursue a criminal conviction rests squarely with law enforcement,” Kelly commented. “No evidence has been provided that the Church engaged in any kind of cover-up. The rumor that Fr. Chesney was involved was known to the civil authorities. We can only speculate why they did not act to arrest him and let the criminal process take its course.”

At the same time, Kelly voiced sympathy for the victims’ families.

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“Sadly, the passage of time and the deaths of many of those who could have helped enquiries makes that now seem impossible. It is a situation unfortunately faced my [sic] many.” 

Solicitor Kevin Winters, who is representing the families involved, told the Irish state broadcaster RTE News that the families will never have total closure. However, he added, “they felt empowered” because their initiating legal action helped them “access key information.”

Their lawyers said the families wanted “to place on record their anger and disgust at the attitude of the Church to date within the legal proceedings,” the Irish Times reports. “The families would like to finally say that they were deeply disappointed in the lack of a proper investigation into the murder of their loved ones by the Police.”

The attorneys said that police and the Northern Ireland Office showed a “mature attitude” in mediation that helped the families in “understanding some serious failings by the state.”

Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry told CNA that the case is under legal consideration and “it would be inappropriate to comment.”

When the ombudsman report was released in 2010, Catholic leaders issued two separate statements.

A joint statement from then-Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Sean Brady and then-Bishop of Derry Seamus Hegarty called the bombing “an appalling crime” and noted “the terrible human cost of this atrocity.” They accepted the report’s conclusions and said the priest should have been arrested and questioned if there was sufficient evidence. They said that all known Catholic Church material was made available to investigators.

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Another 2010 statement, from the widely respected Bishop emeritus Edward Daly of Derry, was more skeptical. In an opinion article in the Irish News, Daly said he was not at all convinced of Chesney’s involvement, though the priest was an outspoken republican sympathizer. Daly’s predecessor and superior never informed him they believed the priest was a murderer, and Daly himself had the priest observed.

Further, he said, the quality of intelligence produced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the time was notoriously poor, and led to the internment of many who were falsely accused of IRA activities.

Bishop McKeown, who has headed the Derry diocese since 2014, told CNA the 2010 statements are “still valid commentary.”

Daly’s 2010 commentary said the Claudy bombing was “one of Northern Ireland’s most despicable acts of terror.” He prayed for the truth to come out for the families, the community, and Chesney’s relatives.

“I hope the Claudy families launch a campaign that achieves justice and truth,” he said.

At the same time, Daly said that the media reports on the ombudsman’s findings were “very disquieting.” News media should have questioned “key aspects” of its claims that Chesney was a senior IRA figure linked to the bombings.

The bishop suggested that police wanted the priest out of the area “because of his publicly proclaimed republican sympathies and a fear of the influence these might exert on young people in the area.”  

In Kelly’s view, it’s possible Chesney’s reputed involvement - or the source of the rumors about him - may never be known.

“What we do know, however, is that there is a very murky world when it comes to the activities of the intelligence community in Northern Ireland including allegations of such egregious violations of the sacraments as placing listening devices in confessional boxes,” he told CNA. “For large parts of the history of Northern Ireland, the civil conflict was accompanied by a very ‘dirty war’ of propaganda and half-truths.”

“I feel profoundly sad for the losses endured by the Claudy families, and my thoughts are also with the family of Fr. Chesney who see his name repeatedly raised in this context without him even having been questioned by the police,” said Kelly.

Brady and Hegarty in 2010 lamented that the lack of an investigation failed those murdered, injured or bereaved in the attacks. They emphasized that the Church was “constant in its condemnation of the evil of violence” during the Troubles, adding that it was “shocking” that a priest was suspected of involvement.

“The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter,” Brady and Hegarty said.