Saturday, September 30, 2023

Catholic Church facing day in court over Father James Chesney’s links to IRA attacks

Who was Father James Chesney? - BBC News

The Catholic Church could be in court next year over what it knew about the alleged IRA activities of a priest.

Father James Chesney is suspected of having been involved in IRA attacks during the early years of the Troubles - including the 1972 Claudy atrocity which killed nine people.

It’s alleged church leaders at the time knew about Chesney’s IRA links.

According to a 2010 Police Ombudsman’s report, a police investigation into Chesney was stopped after senior officers conspired with the government and Catholic Church to protect him.

Instead of being questioned about the Claudy attack, Chesney was transferred to a parish in County Donegal following secret talks between the then secretary of state William Whitelaw and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway.

Chesney died in 1980 at the age of 46 without ever being quizzed about the Claudy massacre.

No one has ever been charged in connection with the attack on August 31, 1972, when three car bombs devastated the County Derry village.

It was blamed on the Provisional IRA - but the terror group has never admitted being responsible.

At the time of the attack, Chesney is believed to have been a senior figure within the south Derry brigade of the IRA.

While not believed to have been involved directly with the placing of the bombs in Claudy, he was suspected of helping to plan the attack.

In 2013, relatives of three of the victims – William Watson Temple, 16, David Miller, 60, and James McClelland, 64 – launched legal action against the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Catholic Church over the events surrounding the Claudy attack.

Two years ago, the PSNI and Northern Ireland Office agreed confidential settlements “without an admission of liability”.

The relatives are continuing with a civil case against the Catholic Church.

The relatives’ solicitor Barry O’Donnell, from KRW Law, said his clients had always made it “very clear” they hold the IRA responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.

However, he said the civil case against the Catholic Church was proceeding.

“The actions were taken against three defendants, the Catholic Diocese of Derry, the Chief Constable of the PSNI and the NIO,” said Mr O’Donnell.

“The actions against the PSNI and the NIO were settled in mediation.

“The court case against the Catholic Diocese of Derry continues and it would be inappropriate to comment on the action whilst court proceedings continue.”

Mr O’Donnell urged anyone with information about the Claudy – even now 51 years later – to come forward.

“The families would appeal to anyone that has information on who carried out the bombings to contact the police or the families’ solicitor at KRW Law.”

When contacted by the Sunday World, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church declined to comment on the legal action.

“There are live proceedings currently before the court and having taken legal advice it would not be appropriate to make any comment or answer any questions relating to those proceedings until they have been concluded.”

However, it is understood if a settlement is not reached, the case will come before a court next year.

Claudy is often described as one of the forgotten atrocities of the Troubles.

The attack took place on the same day as Operation Motorman - when 12,000 British soldiers entered republican no-go areas in Belfast and Derry in a bid to regain control.

The first bomb exploded without warning outside McElhinney's shop and bar on Main Street in Claudy.

Minutes after the first bomb went off, killing three and fatally wounding three others, police officers discovered a second device in a van beside the village post office.

Officers evacuated people towards the Beaufort Hotel - but a third bomb had been concealed in another van outside the hotel.

Soon after the second bomb detonated, the third exploded, killing three more.

Police believe the bombers attempted to telephone a warning from nearby Dungiven but the lines were down as the result of past bomb damage to the phone exchange.

They then told Dungiven shop owners three bombs were planted in the village, but the proprietors were also unable to contact the authorities due to the line problems.

One shop owner rushed to Dungiven police station with the warning - but it was too late.

Father Chesney had long been suspected by police of being a member of the IRA.

In his 2010 report, Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson revealed the part played by the RUC in the high-level cover-up around the priest.

Mr Hutchinson's officers examined diaries belonging to Cardinal Conway which confirmed contact with him and Mr Whitelaw over Chesney and correspondence between the RUC, which was led by chief constable Sir Graham Shillington, and the government.

Mr Whitelaw, a minister in Edward Heath's Conservative government, died in 1999, Cardinal Conway in 1977 and Sir Graham in 2001.

Findings in Mr Hutchinson's report included:

Police believed Chesney was the IRA's director of operations in south Derry and was a prime suspect in the Claudy attack and other terrorist incidents.

A detective's request to arrest the cleric was refused by an assistant chief constable of RUC Special Branch who instead said, "matters are in hand".

The same senior officer wrote to the government about what action could be taken to "render harmless a dangerous priest" and asked if the matter could be raised with the church's hierarchy.

In December 1972, Mr Whitelaw met Cardinal Conway to discuss the issue. According to a NIO official, "the cardinal said he knew the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done". The church leader mentioned "the possibility of transferring him to Donegal..."

In response to this memo, RUC chief constable Sir Graham noted: "I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary."

An entry in Cardinal Conway's diary on December 5, 1972, confirmed a meeting with Mr Whitelaw took place and stated there had been "a rather disturbing tetea-tete at the end about C".

In another diary entry two months later, the cardinal noted that he had discussed the issue with Chesney's superior and that "the superior however had given him orders to stay where he was on sick leave until further notice".

Chesney was transferred across the border to Malin Head parish in County Donegal in late 1973 and never ministered again in Northern Ireland.

According to church records, he denied involvement in the IRA when questioned by his superiors.

In his 2010 report, Mr Hutchinson said there was no evidence the police had information that could have prevented the Claudy attack.

However, he said the RUC's decision to ask the government to resolve the matter with the church, and then accept the outcome, was wrong.

"The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing," he said.

"The police officers who were working on the investigation were also undermined."

Mr Hutchinson said the decisions made 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," he said.

"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."

As regards the role of church and State officials, Mr Hutchinson said his investigation found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of any government minister or official or any official of the Catholic Church.

However, he added: "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.”