Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: No hiding immoral Claudy cover-up

There is no doubt that 1972 was the worst of times. Some 500 people died that year, including the nine killed when the IRA bombed the village of Claudy in County Londonderry.

Now, even after over 35 years, the families of those nine people must still feel a burning sense of injustice, for it has emerged that police knew the identity of one of the bombers, Fr James Chesney, but he was spirited away across the border in a shameful act of collusion between the state and the Catholic Church.

Some might argue that it was a pragmatic approach to a very sensitive issue at a very dangerous time in the history of this province, as it is suggested that the arrest of the priest could have provoked a loyalist backlash against other Catholic clergy. Others argue that an arrest could have soured relationships between the Church and the new direct rule administration. Yet another contention is that the police would have been seen as acting partially by Catholics who had seen paratroopers escape virtually uncensored by the Widgery report into the shooting dead of 13 innocent civilians just a few months earlier.

None of those arguments really wash. At the very least, the RUC intelligence on the bombing and the identity of one of the bombers should have been tested. Indeed, that is what all law-abiding people expected to happen in every investigation into acts of terrorism; that suspects would be arrested and brought to justice if sufficient evidence was found.

Fr Chesney is said to have driven one of the cars containing a bomb into Claudy, and parked it outside a grocery shop where an eight-year-old girl was cleaning the windows. She was killed in the subsequent blast.

Yet this man was allowed to continue as a priest for the rest of his life. The Catholic Church may now say that there was no barrier to his arrest, even when he was spirited away to Co Donegal, and that he denied being involved in the bombing when questioned by senior clergy.

But the Church agreed to a shoddy deal. So did Secretary of State, William Whitelaw. So, also, did the RUC, although it had little alternative when the Church and State presented the force with a fait accompli.

The Church as an institution should be concerned about the morality of its actions above all else. Religion is founded on moral judgments, yet in this instance, as in the decades of clerical abuse of children, it chose a tactical approach rather than a moral one. The Church may have saved face in the short-term, but it has lost respect in the final analysis.

The State and the Church, two institutions which should be duty-bound to protect the rights of everyone, let down the bereaved of Claudy.

No exercise in semantics, nor belated apologies, can hide that shameful fact.

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