CLAUDY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - The government, the police and the Catholic Church colluded to protect a priest suspected of involvement in a 1972 bombing in Northern Ireland that killed 9 people, a report said on Tuesday.
The Police Ombudsman's eight-year probe revealed a cardinal was involved in moving Father James Chesney out of Northern Ireland, highlighting anew the way the Church hierarchy shielded priests from allegations of criminal activity.
The inquiry showed former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw had a private meeting with Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in which they discussed the possibility of transferring Chesney.
"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," Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said. But "the decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing."
No one was ever charged or convicted for the triple car bomb attack on the rural village of Claudy. Those killed included a 9-year-old girl and two teenage boys.
Chesney, a priest in a neighbouring parish, always denied any involvement, though the police had intelligence that he was the South Derry leader of republican guerrilla group, the IRA, and a sniffer dog found traces of explosive in his car when he was stopped at a checkpoint in September 1972. He died in 1980.
The current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, who has been under pressure to resign over his role in concealing sex abuse cases, denied the Church took part in a cover-up.
"He (Cardinal Conway) was faced with an impossible situation but his primary consideration would be the prevention of any further acts of violence," said Cardinal Sean Brady.
One of the relatives of those killed told reporters that she had been told the priest had continued his IRA activities after being transferred to Donegal in the Irish Republic in 1973.
"This is an absolute disgrace. It is an absolute outrage," said Tracey Deans, whose grandfather was killed. "I would like to know how many more people suffered because of him."
July 1972 was the bloodiest month in the bloodiest year of three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland and the Claudy bombings came six months after British soldiers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians in a civil rights march in Londonderry.
A photograph of a Catholic priest waving a blood-stained handkerchief in front of a fatally wounded marcher being carried through the city was the defining image of "Bloody Sunday."
The police may have feared that arresting a priest over the Claudy attack could have triggered a fierce backlash among Northern Ireland's minority Catholic population.
The British government made an historic apology two months ago for "Bloody Sunday" and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, said on Tuesday he was "profoundly sorry" that the victims of Claudy had been denied justice.
Calls for a South African-style truth commission into the decades-long conflict is unlikely given the still shaky concord between groups that want to keep Northern Ireland part of Britain and those that want a united Ireland.
A senior police officer wrote in November 1972 that, rather than arrest Chesney, "our masters may find it possible to bring the subject into any conversations they may be having with the Cardinal or Bishops at some future date..."
Conway's protection of Chesney echoed action by the Catholic Church to shield priests from allegations of child sex abuse. Scandals over the abuse and the cover-ups have helped topple the Church from its once dominant position in Irish life.
The key police officers in the Claudy bombing are now dead but the ombudsman said that had they been alive their actions would have been investigated.
Writing by Carmel Crimmins; editing by Tim Pearce and Nina Chestney