Catholic prelates in N. Ireland react to report on priest linked to 1970s IRA bombing

Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Seán Brady / Fr. James Chesney
Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Seán Brady / Fr. James Chesney


Two bishops responded Tuesday to claims that a Catholic priest was never questioned for his suspected role in a Northern Ireland bombing during the 1970s. The prelates remarked that the suspicions are “shocking” and commented that the case should have been properly investigated during the priest’s lifetime.

On July 31, 1972 a triple car bombing killed nine, including an eight-year-old girl, and injured 30 in the village of Claudy. Among those who died were five Catholics and four Protestants.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) never claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Daily Telegraph reports. The bombers had allegedly tried to make warning calls but telephone lines were down from earlier bomb damage.

Fr. James Chesney, reported to be an IRA sympathizer, was suspected of planning the attack. He was later transferred to a parish in the Republic of Ireland outside of the United Kingdom’s jurisdiction.

The priest died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 46 and was never questioned by police.

Al Hutchinson, the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, recently issued a report which charged that a Royal Union Constabulary (RUC) official refused a detective’s request to arrest the cleric. The same official asked whether the matter could be raised within the Church hierarchy.

Hutchinson found that when the Church was informed about “the level of concerns others had” about Fr. Chesney, officials challenged the priest 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,” stated the report.

Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Seán Brady and Bishop of Derry Séamus Hegarty issued a joint statement Tuesday on the investigation. They accepted the ombudsman’s findings and conclusions.

“All known material in the possession of the Catholic Church has been made available to the Ombudsman,” the statement said.

“This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney’s lifetime. 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. We agree with the Police Ombudsman that the fact this did not happen failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombings.”

According to the prelates, the Catholic Church was “constant” in its condemnation of the violence during the conflict known as the “Troubles.”

“The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter,” Cardinal Brady and Bishop Hegarty wrote. They noted that the Church was approached by the then-Secretary of State at the instigation of senior members of the RUC.

According to the bishops, the actions of Cardinal William Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of the future arrest and questioning of Fr. Chesney, as the priest was known to have regularly traveled across the border.

“Fr. Chesney is dead and, as a suspect in the Claudy bombing, he is beyond the justice of earthly courts,” the bishops’ statement continued, saying that the bereaved and injured “deserve to know the truth.”

Urging that the “human cost of this atrocity” be remembered, Cardinal Brady and Bishop Hegarty assured the bombing victims of their prayers.

“It is only with honesty and bravery that we as a community can address these painful issues and do our best to ensure that the dreadful lessons of the past are learned and never repeated,” the bishops’ statement concluded.