An investigation has found that the police, government and Roman Catholic church colluded to cover up the suspected involvement of a priest in a 1972 bombing in Northern Ireland that killed nine people and injured 30.
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.
"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.
Chesney was transferred to the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, beyond the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland police, amid fears his arrest over the attacks in Claudy would inflame sectarian tensions at the time.
A joint statement from Cardinal Sean Brady, the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and Derry bishop Seamus Hegarty, said it was "shocking" that a priest could have been involved in the bombing.
"This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney's lifetime," they said.
But they rejected any conspiracy, saying: "The Catholic church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter."
They noted that Chesney, who died in 1980 aged 46, denied any involvement when asked about the allegations by a senior churchman.
No-one was ever charged with the murders but Chesney has long been suspected as the member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who masterminded the plot, although the IRA denied responsibility.
The investigation by Al Hutchinson, Northern Ireland's police ombudsman, said there was "extensive police intelligence" linking the priest to the IRA and the Claudy attack, and said many police officers wanted to pursue him.
William Whitelaw, the then British minister for Northern Ireland, and Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, discussed whether Chesney could be transferred out of the province, a suggestion passed on to police.
Chesney was moved to Ireland in late 1973.
Although Hutchinson said there was no suggestion police could have prevented the bombings, he said he deplored the cover-up.
|Hutchinson said there was no suggestion police could have prevented the bombings
"The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing," he said.
Acknowledging the reasoning for moving the priest, Hutchinson said: "I accept that 1972 was one of the worst years of the Troubles [the name given to the three decades of violence in the province] and that the arrest of a priest might well have aggravated the security situation.
"Equally, I consider that the police failure to investigate someone they suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism could, in itself, have had serious consequences."
Hutchinson described the cover-up as "collusion" but said he found no evidence of criminal intent by the church or the government, and said all those involved on the police side who might face investigation were dead.
Owen Paterson, the current British minister for Northern Ireland, said he was "profoundly sorry" that Chesney was not properly investigated.
The violence in Northern Ireland was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal but sporadic unrest still flares in the province.