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Sunday 29 August 2010

The context was frightening but church collusion was still wrong

The church must make a full confession about its part in the Fr James Chesney case, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

First, let's look at the extenuating circumstances: those colluding in protecting Fr James Chesney from interrogation over the Claudy murders were genuinely terrified that the arrest of a priest might unleash murderous rage against the innocent, from loyalist and republican paramilitaries alike.

1972 was a terrible year in Northern Ireland. There were 497 Troubles-related killings (including 259 civilians, 134 soldiers, 74 republican and 11 loyalist paramilitaries, and 17 police). The Claudy deaths on July 31 (nine people ranging in age from eight to 65) were the last of a particularly terrible month. Just under 100 died that July. Loyalist paramilitaries shot 22 civilians and republicans killed 16 civilians, 14 soldiers and a policeman. Soldiers shot 10 republican paramilitaries, and nine civilians and others had died in the cross-fire or at unknown hands. And then there was Bloody Friday, 10 days before Claudy, when the IRA detonated 20 bombs in 75 minutes all around Belfast, killing nine -- six civilians, two soldiers and a policeman, and injuring 130 (mostly shoppers).

After they'd cleaned up Claudy, the RUC believed they knew two of the perpetrators: the person the Ombudsman identified as Man A, and Fr Chesney, who, along with a close relation of A's, had given A an alibi. Special Branch had intelligence that Chesney was the quartermaster and director of operations of the brutal South Derry IRA and that, with Man A, he'd been involved in other terrorist incidents. In September, he was thought to have helped Man A (who later left the country) to evade arrest.

Chesney was a popular priest, well-known for organising dances and big-prize raffles and bingo, the proceeds of which were regularly stolen -- presumably by the IRA. The local police wanted to arrest him and search the parochial house, but were thwarted by an assistant chief constable, who said "matters are in hand". In early November, he confided to the Northern Ireland Office that he'd been considering "what action, if any, could be taken to render harmless a dangerous priest". Could 'our masters' mention it to the cardinal or bishops?

Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw told a journalist he went to bed every night expecting to wake up to a civil war, so was susceptible to advice from the top of the RUC that Chesney could provide the flashpoint. On December 5, armed with a precis of intelligence, including a positive sniffer-dog check for traces of explosives in the priest's car, Whitelaw had a tete-a-tete with Cardinal William Conway.

Conway, the Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, had been courageous and forceful in his condemnation of IRA violence, but he too was a frightened man. In the preceding week, loyalists had shot four civilians and had let off two bombs in Dublin, killing two and injuring 127. He told Whitelaw he knew Chesney was "a very bad man and would see what could be done", mentioning transferring him to Donegal. The RUC chief constable indicated he'd prefer Tipperary.

Only the Bishop of Derry had the authority to move Chesney. At Conway's request, Bishop Neil Farren questioned him and he "strenuously" denied the charge, admitting only that "he had transported some people and this might explain the (explosives) traces in the car". Farren told him to

stay in his Bellaghy parish on sick leave (with which Chesney "seemed pleased"). Including a period of convalescence, the priest was off duty until December 1973. Farren retired in April 1973, and was not replaced by Edward Daly until 1974. Through the intercession of Conway, the Bishop of Raphoe took Fr Chesney on in December 1973 and, from then until his death in 1980, and believed to be still a major player on Planet Provo, he crossed the Border frequently, unchallenged by anyone.

And this is where I stop asking you to show charity by thinking of the dreadful context. There is no excuse whatsoever for the negligence shown by Chesney's superiors, who allowed someone they thought might be a mass murderer and still-active terrorist, to live near Derry and to make a mockery of his priesthood -- on the altar and in the pulpit and confessional. The brave and right thing to do would have been to tell the police to arrest him and make a public statement supporting this and condemning political violence. Or if they didn't have the courage for that, why wasn't he exported to South America? Or suspended? Or sent to Tipperary and told never again to set foot in Derry?

And now we have the pathetic spectacle of Cardinal Sean Brady and Bishop of Derry Seamus Hegarty telling us the church was in an impossible position and there was no collusion or cover-up. I listened to Brady's rigid stonewalling on RTE and Hegarty's weaselling on the BBC and cringed. What is wrong with these people?

The appropriate response would have been a heartfelt apology for the inadequacy of the church's response, a frank admission of church collusion -- however well-intentioned -- with a firm resolution of sinning no more. But Bishop Daly was even worse. Having interviewed Chesney and accepted his denials, he claims Chesney must be innocent, so he blames the police and tells us it was "beyond understanding" that he wasn't arrested and questioned. With spectacular chutzpah even for an Irish bishop, he added: "I believe that this constituted a huge betrayal of the victims."

If I prayed, I would pray every day for the unfortunate Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has exhausted himself trying to explain to episcopal fools and knaves that the problem is with the concealment of clerics' sins of commission and omission, and not with those who exposed them, and that unless the past is addressed courageously, the apologies are humble and heartfelt and the laity is treated with respect, the game is up.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards