Conspiracy covered up priest's alleged role in Claudy terror

THE Secretary of State, the Chief Constable and the head of the Catholic church in Ireland were involved in a cover up of the suspected involvement of a priest in the murder of nine men, women and children in Claudy.

That was the finding of Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, who yesterday released his long-awaited report into how the RUC handled their suspicions that there was a Catholic priest allegedly involved in the bombing on the July 31, 1972.

The Police Ombudsman found that an 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 Ombudsman met yesterday with the families of those killed and affected by the brutal attack. He presented the families with a Public Statement which included in-depth information from the police, the NIO and the Catholic church, which had never before been publicised.

Mr Hutchinson's investigation began after the police stated in 2002 that the RUC were holding information that a priest was an active member of the IRA, and was involved in the bombing.

That investigation came after a letter was received, purporting to come from a priest stating that Father James Chesney had admitted to him that he was involved in 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….."

Wrote back

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".

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.