Some claim Fr James Chesney was an IRA leader and a mass murderer.
His defenders say the charismatic cleric with a taste for the high life is an easy scapegoat, because dead men can't talk.
We have heard all about him over the past week.
The playboy priest, the devil's disciple, the country cleric with the matinee-idol good looks who literally got away with murder.
Yet Fr James Chesney remains a far more mysterious figure than tabloid headlines suggest. And responsibility for the Claudy bombing, in which nine people were slaughtered, extends far beyond one rogue priest with a penchant for poker and sports cars.
Chesney's father John, a Protestant, worked in the loyalist Upperlands in Co Derry but converted to Catholicism after meeting his future wife Mary Ann.
Nobody remembers ever seeing Chesney with his parents but he was regularly in the company of his wealthy aunt and uncle, Willie and Betty Noon.
Former civil rights leader and SDLP founder Ivan Cooper recalled: "They arrived at my house in a bright red Mercedes. She was dripping with furs and waving a long cigarette holder. The Noons had no children. Fr Chesney was like a son to them."
Cooper's account set the tone for most media coverage. He spoke of Chesney "haring along country roads in his sports car". He described him as "sophisticated, strikingly handsome, an extremely magnetic and engaging man... Fr Chesney was Derry's answer to Bonnie and Clyde".
Yet Chesney cut a far from dashing figure. A heavily built man, with old-fashioned bushy sideburns and a receding hairline, looks out from faded photographs.
"I was not aware his political views were very different from his aunt's and uncle's until some time later," said the ex-civil rights leader whose evidence to the Saville inquiry on Bloody Sunday was rejected as completely unreliable.Held in high esteem
Contrary to Cooper's understanding, a former Sinn Féin member describes the Noons as "extremely dedicated republicans" who tirelessly raised money for the Green Cross, the IRA prisoners' fund, in south Derry.
Solicitor and former civil rights activist Padraigín Drinan remembers attending some of their fundraising dinners: "They were fancy events in a nice hotel, not like the normal prisoners' functions in shebeens. The food would be arranged on the plate so the colours matched the tricolour.
"The peas on the left, the potatoes and chicken in the middle, and the carrots on the right. Fr Chesney was always spoken of at these dinners. It was obvious he was held in high esteem."
Still, Drinan is concerned at much of what has been reported as fact about Chesney – that he was the IRA's south Derry commander and drove the lead bomb car into Claudy. The police ombudsman's report found that the RUC, Catholic church and the British government conspired to cover up his suspected activities.
The explanation circulating has been that arresting a Catholic priest would have worsened the security situation by inflaming nationalists. "That doesn't ring true," says Drinan. "During the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre, British soldiers shot dead Fr Hugh Mullan who had gone to help an injured man.
"Another priest was also shot in east Belfast but survived. And two Belfast priests, Fr Peter McCann and Fr Malachy Murphy, were arrested for not completing the 1971 census forms in protest against interment.
"The state had shown it was prepared not just to arrest priests but to shoot them, so why not question Fr Chesney if there was evidence against him? I don't know if he was or wasn't involved in Claudy, and I'm no fan of the Catholic church, but something stinks. It's easy to scapegoat Fr Chesney because dead men don't talk back."
Drinan's concerns are shared by retired Catholic bishop of Derry Edward Daly, a staunch opponent of republican violence.
Daly, who had gone to school with Chesney, expressed "serious doubts" about the Claudy allegations which he said the priest had "utterly, unequivocally and vehemently" denied.
However, a former senior IRA figure in Derry told the Sunday Tribune that while he didn't know if Chesney was involved in Claudy, the priest was an IRA member: "Like many others, he joined following that natural wave of anger at how civil rights marchers were treated. He was deeply affected by the introduction of internment."
The former IRA man attended a meeting in the parish hall in Bellaghy, Co Derry, at which Chesney was present: "It was arranged by a well-respected Dungiven republican Tommy Toner. The meeting was so the IRA in Derry city and in Co Derry could co-ordinate their activities more.
"Meetings were regularly held in parish halls in Dungiven and Bellaghy. The church could be bluffed into thinking it was a civil rights-type meeting, rather than an IRA one, or it could bluff itself into believing that."'He wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty'
The ex-IRA member was "very impressed" with Chesney: "He was extremely confident and dynamic. He wasn't just a verbal republican. He wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Although he didn't swear in IRA volunteers, he was present at meetings where that happened."
The ex-Provisional was in jail at the time of the Claudy bombing so he doesn't know if Chesney played any role in it. Three bombs were driven into the village. They were left at the petrol station, the post office, and the Beaufort Hotel.
The IRA's aim was to divert British troops away from Derry city. That day thousands of soldiers had entered the Bogside in Operation Motorman, an attempt to take control of no-go areas. The bombers had planned to make phone warnings from Dungiven but the telephone exchanges – blown up in an earlier IRA attack – hadn't been repaired so the bombs exploded without warning.
"It was a badly planned operation from start to finish," says one local republican. "It was organised by the Derry brigade. There was something sinister about the whole thing. There were plenty of other ways of drawing the Brits out of Derry. Driving three bombs into a wee place like Claudy made no sense. It wasn't like leaving bombs at a police station, a courthouse, or a commercial town centre. This was a village with 400 residents. Propaganda-wise, it was disastrous for the IRA."Charity proceeds 'handily robbed'
Martin McGuinness was the IRA OC in Derry at the time of the bombing. "It's unbelievable that he didn't organise it [Claudy] or, at the very least, authorise it," a former comrade says.
A republican source told the Sunday Tribune that RUC Special Branch was given Chesney's name as the Claudy bomber by the then IRA OC in Kilrea, Co Derry.
Chesney regularly organised charity dances or £1,000 bingo sessions. "Often, the proceeds would be handily robbed by men in balaclavas," says the ex-IRA man. "Other times, he'd organise these big social gatherings as cover so other meetings could take place without the RUC or Brits knowing."
But while the priest's IRA involvement seems indisputable, he is a convenient character on whom to heap all the blame for Claudy. Apart from the leaders who authorised the bombing, eight people took part. The IRA arranged for some to go to America afterwards.
A heavy smoker, Chesney had heart by-pass surgery the same year as Claudy. He was moved to Donegal in 1973. Once, he tried to book the Boomtown Rats for a community gig. He was instrumental in fundraising to build a huge community centre in Burnfoot where a plaque honours his memory. He was a keen sailor and member of the Lough Swilly yacht club.
Chesney died in 1980 aged 46. His death, like his life, remains a mystery. Some reports say he died of cancer, others of thrombosis. He was buried with his mother and father in Maghera, Co Derry. The gravestone asks visitors to pray for the repose of his soul.SIC: ST