The Police Ombudsman has released 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 Police Ombudsman has found that a RUC decision to seek the Government's assistance through an engagement with senior figures in the Catholic Church, and then to accept an understanding that was reported back to them, compromised the investigation of the Claudy bombing; failed those who were murdered and injured; and undermined the police officers who were investigating the atrocity.
The Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, travelled to Claudy this morning to meet families of those killed in the attack and a number of others, who were affected. Mr. Hutchinson presented them with a Public Statement of his findings, which included detailed information from the police, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Catholic Church, which has never before been made public.
The Police Ombudsman's investigators have examined Intelligence and information held by the RUC in relation to both the priest and the investigation of the bombing of Claudy and have examined RUC correspondence with the Government about the priest. Investigators have also examined NIO material and have been given access to relevant material held by the Catholic Church.
The Police Ombudsman's investigation formally began in late 2002, following a statement by the PSNI, which said that the RUC had information which indicated that a priest was an active member of the IRA and was involved in the bombing of Claudy. The statement said that the Secretary of State at the time, the Rt. Hon. William Whitelaw, and Cardinal William Conway had discussed the priest. It said that all the opportunities available to arrest and interview the suspects in the bombing of Claudy had not been taken. A senior police officer expressed an apology for this.
The investigation also followed the earlier receipt of a letter forwarded by a public official. It was purported to have been written by a priest, alleging that Father James Chesney, who was a priest in Bellaghy in July 1972, had been directly involved in the Claudy bombings. The letter claimed that 'with the help of a senior police officer and the Bishop' Father Chesney was given a posting in County Donegal.
The Police Ombudsman's investigation has examined the records held by the RUC in relation to Father Chesney. It found no evidence that police had information, which if acted upon, could have helped them to prevent the bombings.
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.
The Police Ombudsman has concluded that for senior police officers to have had the weight of Intelligence and information that they had pointing to Father Chesney's possible involvement in terrorism and not to have pursued lines of inquiry, which could potentially have implicated him in or eliminated him from the investigation, was wrong and compromised their investigation into the Claudy bombings.
He has concluded that rather than act on these opportunities, the police decision to seek the Government's assistance through their engagement with senior figures in the Catholic Church compromised the investigation into the Claudy bombing. He believes that the RUC clearly accepted the understanding that was reported back to them.
"The consequence of their acquiescence was that the investigation was further compromised. The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing. The police officers who were working on the investigation were also undermined," said Mr Hutchinson.
The Police Ombudsman has acknowledged that there has been much public commentary about the bombings, alleging police collusion with the State and the Catholic Church.
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."
He added, "I am satisfied that the same situation would not be repeated today. Rigorous procedural laws, checks and balances, media scrutiny and Offices such as that of the Police Ombudsman would ensure that similar actions could not occur without proper accountability."
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