Sunday, December 6, 2009

Former journalist calls for reopening of Connolly murder case

Brighid calls for reopening of Connolly murder case
Sunday December 06 2009

The well-known artist and former journalist Brighid McLaughlin has joined broadcaster Gerry Ryan in calling for the reopening of the investigation into the murder of 10-year-old Sligo girl Bernadette Connolly, which gardai said was stopped after high level intervention by the Catholic Church.

More than any other journalist, McLaughlin pursued the case of the little girl who was abducted, raped and murdered in Sligo in 1970.

Detectives involved in the case said they met a wall of silence when they tried to interview clergy, and later discovered that a copy of the murder file which named two priests as suspects was handed over to the Catholic hierarchy of the time.

A suspect in the 1970 case, Fr Columba from the Passionist Order, which had a house in the area, was sent to a mission in Africa during the early stages of the investigation and detectives were ordered to drop inquiries into possible clerical involvement in the rape and murder of the girl.

The publication of the Murphy report into abuse and cover-up in the Dublin Diocese, and the renewed appeals of Bernadette Connolly's sisters for the case to be re-examined, spurred Brighid McLaughlin to revisit the case, and she is writing to the Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy offering the extensive notes and files she retains on the case.

"I was most frustrated about what happened in the Bernadette Connolly case. I confronted Columba on his first visit to Ireland 28 years after the murder. He brazened it out and tried to stop me," she said yesterday.

Bernadette Connolly's sister, Kerrie Aldridge, appealed for the reopening of the case on Gerry Ryan's show last week, supported by her two other sisters, Patricia Connolly and Anne Guilfoyle.

The suspicions surrounding Fr Columba, who died in 2001, centred on his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

The Passionist Monastery van had been seen in the area at the time and the local garage owner told gardai that he had been called out to fill it with petrol on the evening of the murder. The murder occurred while most of the village of Collooney, where the Connollys lived, were glued to TV sets watching the return of the Apollo spacecraft from the Moon.

Last week a senior detective in the cases was quoted in the Evening Herald as saying: "I got this instruction to re-open the file, to bring Fr Columba in. I had been told that Fr Columba was in Mount Argus [the Passionist monastery in Dublin] and was told to prepare my interview. The night before I was told to forget about it, I was told this was coming right from the top,"

The Murphy report was critical of the actions of Garda Commissioner Daniel Costigan, who it found had intervened to prevent investigations into clerical abusers in Dublin. Retired gardai who spoke to the Sunday Independent last week concurred with the findings of Judge Murphy that certain gardai were effectively under the control of the Catholic Church.

One said: "Look, there is no point giving out. It was a totally different world. The Church was all-powerful; the word of a bishop was law in Ireland. Even if a young fella told his parents [about abuse by a priest] they would be afraid they would be excommunicated. They were frightened, they were very afraid.

"There was a sergeant down in Wicklow who had a case to do with the Church and abuse. He was nearly excommunicated. I remember in [the early Seventies] a guard in Dublin who wasn't afraid to take a case. He was nearly sacked. The sheer power of the Church . . . people have no idea now."

Another stated that the tide of Church power came to an end only in 1994 when the publicity over the case of the multiple rapist and abuser Fr Sean Fortune in Wexford was followed by a series of revelations about other priests.

The Fortune case was most prominently highlighted in the Sunday Independent at the time by Veronica Guerin, who devoted a large amount of time and energy in pursuing Bishop Brendan Comiskey about why Fortune was moved from parish to parish each time his abuse was exposed.

The then chief superintendent in Crime and Security at Garda Headquarters, Pat Byrne, who was later to become Garda Commissioner, was among the senior gardai to take a strong line against the Catholic hierarchy when they refused to disclose the whereabouts of three priests wanted for questioning, including Fr Thomas Naughton in Dublin, who was also moved from parish to parish to conceal his abuse.

Byrne, according to colleagues, was intent on issuing a warrant on senior clergy for misprision of felony, the offence of obstructing justice.

It was, according to Byrne's colleagues, only then when the hierarchy, faced with possible arrest, relented and began giving up the whereabouts of suspected abusers.

Naughton was subsequently sentence to three years' imprisonment for the sexual abuse of boys in his care.

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