Thu 23rd Oct 2014 | Last updated: Wed 22nd Oct 2014 at 18:57pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Cardinal Conway was wrong to send a terrorist priest to another parish

Imagine discovering that you have regularly received the sacraments from a mass murderer

By on Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A 1972 photo of the wreckage at Claudy (PA wire)

A 1972 photo of the wreckage at Claudy (PA wire)

There is one aspect of the Claudy affair that seems to have been little commented on, perhaps because most commentators have not been practising Catholics. For me, after the bombings themselves, it is almost the most distressing aspect of the whole affair.

The Northern Ireland police ombudsman has just issued a report into the atrocity which took place on July 31 1972 in Claudy, County Derry. Nine people died in the bombings, including two children. The atrocity was almost certainly planned and perhaps actually committed by a Catholic priest, Fr James Chesney.

According to the ombudsman’s report (I quote the BBC): “Police believed Fr James Chesney was an IRA leader and was involved in the bombing. The police, the Catholic Church and the state conspired to cover up a priest’s suspected role in one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland Troubles…. high-level talks led to Fr James Chesney… being moved to the Irish Republic.”

I have no difficulty at all in understanding why they did it: the pejorative word “conspired” is quite out of place. The overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary was seen by the Catholic community as part of the loyalist enemy. I was not a Catholic at the time; but I never found it difficult to understand why they hated the RUC so much. I have an indelible memory of crossing the border from the Republic at the height of the troubles, and being asked to prove my identity and give an account of myself by a machine-gun toting RUC man. It wasn’t the fact that he did this, but the bullying arrogance with which he did it, that stays in my mind.  

If the RUC had arrested a Catholic priest, Northern Ireland would have gone up in flames then (as later on it did): the RUC knew that and wanted to avoid an arrest: so they asked William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to ask Cardinal William Conway to remove him over the border: he agreed. All that seems to me entirely defensible.

But Fr Chesney was then sent to another parish. That’s the bit that I really don’t understand. A man who was almost certainly a mass murderer (Cardinal Conway believed he was “a very bad man”) was sent to a parish to administer the sacraments and give pastoral care to a congregation which was wholly unaware of what their parish priest was believed to have done (imagine discovering now that you had regularly made your confession to such a monster).

What else could Cardinal Conway have done? That is a real question, to which I don’t have any confident answer. Maybe I’m wrong: but surely, if he had suspended Chesney from his priestly functions pending inquiries; and if Chesney had then been arrested in the Republic by the Gardaí and charged with being a member of the IRA, would not that have met the case? Cardinal Brady has rightly said that “the actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney”. That could have happened in the Republic with the discreet co-operation of the RUC, who could have supplied the evidence.

So, why didn’t it?  None of the press coverage so far has inquired into (I will not call him “Father”) Chesney’s new life in that Donegal parish just over the border.  How has all this affected his old parishioners? That worries me.

  • nytor

    It really doesn't matter. We are not Donatists. The validity of the sacraments he performed was never in doubt, and his personal worthiness or otherwise (and bear in mind that he was never tried, so all this is mere allegation) is irrelevant. Better an unworthy priest and valid sacraments than no priest and no sacraments.

  • D Tubsy

    the ira are scum jerry adams is a ira killing shit head and now you got a catholic preist who turns out to be part of the ira well you cant trust anyone. what happened to the time when you could sit in a box & tell a preist anything it's a fucking joke well lets hope the british army stays over there & kill every ira member & there famliys they are scum & cowards

  • Adrian Gratwick

    'It really doesn't matter?' What's the matter with your moral sense? It's an absolute dis-grace!

  • Michael Donohoe

    Hindsight is indeed a marvellous phenomenon.

    All are equal in the eye of the Almighty. In so far as the law is concerned all are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Nevertheless our human nature seems to demand we must sit in judgement on others.

  • Mephistophiles

    I cannot quite believe the title of this piece – it's like saying Hitler was a bit naughty. Such is the Catholic mindset I suppose.

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum

    “Better an unworthy priest and valid sacraments than no priest and no sacraments” – Nytor

    Really? Would you have taken communion from Marcial Maciel?

  • Dmjlewis

    I think there is a category confusion here, in that the phrase 'doesn't matter' is being used in different ways.
    What Nytor is saying is that the Sacraments 'work' for the recipient even if the priest involved is stained by mortal sin . If it turns out that a priest has been, say, having an affair with the parish secretary, that does not mean that Our Lord was not present in the Host when I received the Eucharist from the said sinful priest.

    However, it ' does matter ' inasmuch as the priest is giving a terrible example and creating a situation in which scandal is likely, if not inevitable. The priest is also being hypocritical and damaging his own soul into the bargain. I'm sure Nytor would agree.

    I agree with the original article, and think withdrawing faculties from Fr. Chesney would be a prudent measure until the issue is settled .

  • Mephistophiles

    Or to put another way, if it turns out that a priest has been, say, blowing up 8 year old girls, that does not mean your lord is not present in the cracker when you went through your weekly act of cannibalism given by the said sinful priest.

    Step out of yourself for just one minute, and read what you wrote. It's truly evil.

  • Caritas

    Among its presumption of guilt without proof and reliance on the opinions of what is admitted by Mr Oddie to be a sectarian police force this article promotes the erronious belief that Cardinal Conway had the authority to remove any priest from a parish outside of his own diocese….that power lay with Dr Farren, Bishop of Derry.

  • Mephistophiles

    The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland confirmed that Chesney was involved in carrying out the atrocity and that the police, British government and Catholic Church conspired to keep that fact a secret.

    That's not opinion, it is conclusion based on the evidence.

  • Michael Donohoe

    Not so, mephistophiles. The standard of 'proof ' you seek to rely on at this point in time is not evidence. Suspicion at its best does not form the basis for guilt under the rule of law even in Northern Ireland in the relevant times inspite of the draconian legislation then in place. Simple dislike, distaste or whatever for the person or persons concerned is not sufficient basis for the conclusion you have reached.

  • David Armitage

    “Better an unworthy priest and valid sacraments than no priest and no sacraments.”
    Delete “unworthy”, substitute *paedophile”

  • homemaker

    We saw the Birmingham six and the Guildford four, convicted in a court of law, then subsequently their convictions were quashed. The report into Bloody Sunday has made tragic reading, as we see lies were told for years.
    Fr.Chesney was available at least for questioning, if not outright prosecution, for many years. It is also significant to me, that the government at the highest level as well as the police, conspired together with the church to “sort out” the Chesney problem. How does the church realistically fight both government and police? or ignore them?
    I can't help but feel there is more to this story than we are being told. I also note that hard evidence against Chesney is distinctly lacking. I keep waiting to hear about the hard evidence gathered against him, which would prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.Police believed Chesney was an IRA leader and involved in murder.Fair enough, but believed on exactly what basis? Police believed the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 were senior IRA and invoilved directly in murder.They were wrong.

    I'm not sure what to think of this story and want to reserve judgement until we hear more, as at present I just don't think we are getting the full truth of what went on with Chesney, the Home Secretary and the RUC. The whole business smells bad and nobody is coming out of this looking good.

  • homemaker

    Further information has already come to light about Fr.Chesney. It seems the RUC wanted to bring him in for questioning, but Special Branch put a stop to it. Special Branch ordered him left alone. Then followed, the clandestine 3-way deal between state, church and police, which has come to light now that almost all the participants are dead.

    We have to be clear about what it is that Special Branch do. They are responsible for counter-terrorism. They acquire and develop intelligence, maintaining contact with the security services MI5 and MI6. Espionage is central to their remit, grooming informants, finding reliable informants and protecting them.

    It is interesting that Special branch stepped in to protect Fr.Chesney from P.C. Plod.Even more interesting that P.C. Plod who wanted to bring him to book, suddenly did a U-turn and joined in the quiet and secret deal to get him moved.This also explains in a clear way, why Fr.Chesney was never questioned subsequently and was left alone.What is certain is that we shall never really know.
    All there is,is speculation, rumour and counter-rumour. I just feel sad that the church again, seems to be taking the brunt of the criticism while Special Branch and Willie Whitelaw fade into the background. Ask yourself seriously, why would Willie Whitelaw take a personal and powerful interest in a local priest, but keep it secret?
    As I said in my previous posting, I don't know what to think of all this, because I feel we are only getting a partial story which on close examination doesn't really hang together in a convincing way. All of it smells bad, and all of those involved appear a little tainted. Personally, I would advocate caution and reticence, until we know more. It's easy to look for blame when children are murdered in cold blood, but we need to set aside our horror and utter disgust at this atrocity, and engage our critical faculties with regard to the evidence as it is at present, which is blurred and inconclusive.