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Church involved in Northern Ireland bomb cover-up, report says

An official investigation has revealed that top government, church and police officials helped protect a priest suspected of masterminding the deadly bombing in a Northern Ireland village in 1972.

The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Sean Brady

Cardinal Brady said the church faced an "impossible situation" with more violence likely

Senior officials within the British government, the police and the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland conspired to cover up the involvement of a priest in a 1972 bombing, according to an official report released on Tuesday.

Father James Chesney was the prime suspect in the blast which killed nine people in the village of Claudy, near Londonderry. He was moved to the Republic of Ireland late in 1973, amid fears that his arrest would further inflame sectarian tensions at the time.

The inquiry showed that Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, discussed the possibility of transferring the priest outside the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland police in a private meeting with Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Chesney escaped trial and died in 1980, aged 46.

"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," said police ombudsman Al Hutchinson, who produced the report. But "the decision failed those who were murdered, injured or bereaved in the bombing."

Church rejects collusion

The current British minister for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson said he was "profoundly sorry" that Chesney had not been fully investigated.

But church authorities repudiated reports of a conspiracy. "The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter," a joint statement from Cardinal Sean Brady and Londonderry bishop Seamus Hegarty said.

Nine people were killed and 33 injured when three car bombs exploded in Claudy on July 31 1972. The blasts happened without the customary warnings used by paramilitaries to limit civilian casualties. Nobody was ever charged over the attacks.

Chesney, a priest in a neighbouring parish, always denied involvement. Police had intelligence that he was a leader within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and traces of explosive were found in his car when he was stopped at a checkpoint in September 1972.

No criminal intent

British soldiers in Londonderry on 'Bloody Sunday', January 30 1972

The British government apologized recently after a report into 'Bloody Sunday'

Tuesday's report said that a senior police officer contacted the British government asking for instruction over whether to pursue Chesney. All of the police officials who may have faced investigation are now dead.

Ombudsman Hutchinson described the cover-up as "collusion", but said there was no evidence of criminal intent by the church or government.

The Catholic Church's efforts to shield Chesney are expected to draw criticism though, due to parallels with the protection of priests implicated in the recent sex abuse scandal.

The Claudy bombings came six months after the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre, when British soldiers killed 13 unarmed civilians at a march in Londonderry. Three decades of violence in Northern Ireland, known as 'The Troubles', came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Author: Thomas Sheldrick (Reuters/AFP/AP)
Editor: Rob Turner

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