Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Claudy bombings and Catholic Church complicity

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The revelation that the Catholic Church colluded with senior police and the British government to protect Father James Chesney (pictured) from prosecution for his role in the 1972 Claudy bombings in Northern Ireland, which killed nine people, shames all those involved (many of whom are now dead), and will surely lead to increased criticism of the Church at a time when it is already under fire for alleged child abuse cover-ups. Indeed, the action taken to protect Chesney has a familiar ring to it – the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway, worked with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British government's Northern Ireland office to secure Chesney's safe transfer from his Northern Irish parish to a parish in Donegal in the Irish Republic.

While I will leave the detailed analysis to commentators with deeper knowledge of the story, I find myself wondering whether critics should resist the urge to tie this revelation into their wider criticism of the Church. It is, of course, shcoking to learn that senior Church figures colluded to protect a suspect in a terrorist atrocity, but it seems important to point out that this occurred in the complex context of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, at the height of The Troubles, when the hands of very few of the key players remained particularly clean. The news is an appalling indictment of those in charge of the Church in Ireland at that time, along with their apparent co-conspirators in the RUC and the British government, but to what extent can critics claim that responsibility lies with the Catholic Church as a whole today? Is it any more responsible than the British government of today?

The historian in me is certainly talking here, but I do think it's important to proceed with caution. However, it would be easier to defend the Catholic Church if there was a sense that its hierarchy learns from past mistakes. While the report into Claudy says there was a cover-up involving government, police and Church, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, has apologised, the head of the Irish Church, Cardinal Shaun Brady, has denied that his 1970s counterpart was involved in a conspiracy, saying "The actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney." Brady's view conflicts with that of the report, and the defensive tone feels familiar from the approach Church figure have been known to take to allegations of child abuse cover-ups.

And while Father Chesney was protected from the law almost 40 years ago, evidence from Africa suggests that Catholic leaders have helped to shield criminals from justice much more recently. Richard Wilson wrote about this in our May/June issue, describing how Catholic priests that participated in the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-'90s were moved to parishes in Europe to avoid prosecution. It's a trend that has continued elsewhere in Africa, as Wilson wrote:
"When, in 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for the leaders of Uganda’s brutal Lords Resistance Army, local Catholic clergy were quick to denounce the move as a threat to peace, and (without a hint of irony) a “western” imposition. Since then, the Archbishop of Gulu, Jean-Baptist Odama, has led a vociferous campaign against the indictment of LRA leader Joseph Kony, whose crimes include, as it happens, the large-scale sexual enslavement of children."
Wilson argued that the Catholic Church today clearly has a case to answer here – until it does, and gives a sense that events like the protection of Father Chesney are a thing of the past, it is hard to speak out in its defence.

I'd be interested to hear what others think about this - let me know by commenting below.
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