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Report: Gov't, Catholic church covered up suspected role of priest in 1972 NIreland attack

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — The British government and the Roman Catholic church colluded to cover up the suspected involvement of a priest in a 1972 bombing that killed nine people and injured 30, a new report said Tuesday.

The Northern Ireland police ombudsman's report determined that Father James Chesney was the prime suspect in the blast in the village of Claudy, just outside of Londonderry and that the police chose not to pursue him. The Irish Republican Army has been blamed for the attack.

"A senior (police) officer sought the government's assistance in December 1972, through their engagement with senior figures of the Catholic Church, to 'render harmless a dangerous priest,'" the report said.

Despite the suspicions of authorities, the church and U.K. officials struck a deal that allowed Chesney to move to a parish in Ireland where British prosecutors lacked the jurisdiction to investigate him. Police approached the leaders apparently because of fears that arresting a cleric would inflame a tense situation.

About 100 people died in July 1972 — the most violent month that year.

The deal was struck following a meeting between Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time, and Britain's representative in Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, documents cited by the report said.

Chesney, who died in 1980 after suffering from cancer, had denied involvement in the attack, Conway told Whitelaw, according to the report.

The police at the time believed Chesney to be an IRA member, but the report made no conclusion one way or another about his potential involvement with the group.

However, according to the memo included in the report, a government official who was not named wrote that, "the cardinal said he knew the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done."

The report is certain to raise more questions about what role — if any — the church may have played during the more than 30 years of violence that claimed 3,600 lives.

The current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, issued a statement on Tuesday saying it was "shocking that a priest should be involved in such violence."

Brady insisted, however, that "the Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter."

"If there was sufficient evidence to link him to criminal activity, he should have been arrested and questioned at the earliest opportunity, like anyone else," he said. "The actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of (Father) Chesney."

The IRA's political wing — Sinn Fein — said the report didn't go far enough. Though not addressing potential IRA involvement, the group demanded a full inquiry, saying the ombudsman only addressed the police role.

"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 Francie Molloy, the spokesman for Sinn Fein. "Due to its limited remit (the report) could never deliver the truth about the circumstances surrounding the bomb for the families of those killed."

No one has ever been charged for the attack, which hit the village without the customary warnings that paramilitaries used to limit civilian casualties.

Ombudsman Al Hutchinson's report, which began after new evidence came to light in 2002, comes on the heels of a separate inquiry into the deaths of 13 civilians in Londonderry in the Bloody Sunday massacre.

The Claudy bombing took place only six months after Bloody Sunday during the most violent year in Northern Ireland, when more than 470 died. Catholics and Protestants died in the Claudy attack, including a young girl.

The decision of the church to deal with the problem by transferring the priest suspected of wrongdoing to another parish also offered disturbing echoes of the church's handling of the problem of pedophile priests, many of whom were moved rather than be handed over to authorities for investigation.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said Tuesday that the government was "profoundly sorry."

Some relatives said the apology was not enough and demanded an investigation into issues raised by the police report — perhaps to even prosecute attackers who might still be alive.

Mark Eakin, whose sister Kathryn died in the attack, wondered if there was a conspiracy to hide the truth.

"The Northern Ireland Office couldn't make a decision on this on their own. There's no way William Whitelaw made this decision on his own. It had to come from higher up," he said. "I would like to ask the British government if they would now step in and investigate this thing further."