It has been a bad year for the Roman Catholic church in Ireland. Already reeling from child abuse scandals, the church now stands accused of protecting a priest suspected of killing nine people on behalf of the Irish Republican Army in 1972.
Three bombs exploded in the county Derry village of Claudy exploded on July 31, 1972, in one of the most serious single attacks of Northern Ireland's so-called "Troubles." Five Protestants and four Catholics were killed. Among the victims was an 8-year-old girl.
A report published today by the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland found that police at the time concluded that Father James Chesney was the head of the IRA in south Derry and was strongly suspected of being directly involved in the bombing. But rather than moving to prosecute or arrest him, the British government, the now-disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the church itself conspired to move Fr. Chesney to the Republic of Ireland, where he'd be less able to contribute to the north's political violence.
"That the report finds that a man of God helped to plan the atrocity only compounds the horror of the deed and deepens the grief of the village," says Hugh Logue, a former politician for the area. "Many of the relatives have told me they relied on their love of God to see them through the years and stressed that that love is undiminished.That there was a coverup cannot be defended, even in an era of coverup. It was an age of denial, and anyone who played a role in this denial can only be ashamed."
The apparent intent behind the shuffling of Chesney, who died in 1980, to another diocese was to avoid publicizing the role of a clergyman in the massacre, which some feared could lead to an ant-Catholic pogrom by Protestants. Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said that shouldn't excuse the failure to investigate the matter, which could have "serious consequences."
To be sure, Mr. Hutchinson's investigation "found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of any government minister or official or on the part of any official of the Catholic Church."
1972 was the bloodiest year of the Irish conflict, with more than 500 deaths.
Cardinal Séan Brady, the beleaguered head of the Catholic church in Ireland who has faced censure from critics who say the church moved pedophile priests from diocese to diocese rather than defrocking them or reporting them to the police, is now facing the similar criticism about the church's handling of Chesney.
Cardinal Brady described the bomb as an "appalling crime" and defended the church. "The Catholic Church did not engage in a coverup of this matter," he said.
Now in government, Sinn Féin, the party linked to the now disbanded Provisional IRA that detonated the bomb, issued a statement on the findings today.
“The deaths in Claudy were wrong and should not have happened. The families of those who died or were injured there deserve and are entitled to the truth about the deaths of their loved ones," said the party's Francie Molloy.
The British government has said it is "profoundly" sorry the victims' relatives were denied justice.