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Garda Authorities and Their Affiliation to Mother Church Played a Key Role in Case
Evening Herald, 3 December 2009

Former senior detective tells Evening Herald Editor Stephen Rae he was held back from investigating Fr Columba in murder case

The murder of Bernadette Connolly has played heavily on my mind ever since the publication of the Murphy Report on child abuse by members of the clergy. Bernadette was an innocent 10-year-old when she was abducted, most likely sexually assaulted and then murdered. The only clue gardai had was a green van seen in the area at the time of her disappearance and which belonged to the nearby Cloonmahon Monastery.

I comprehensively researched the case some years ago for the book, Killers, and for a subsequent spin-off book, Guilty. At the time, serving and retired members of the Garda Siochana, all of whom were involved in the murder investigation, volunteered a vast amount of information. All were appalled at the action of their own authorities who they felt had stymied the investigation.

They were in no doubt that senior members of the clergy were informed by their own superiors of every step in the murder investigation. They felt that they had been working with one hand tied behind their backs because garda authorities would not sanction the arrest of a cleric who was the main suspect in the case. They felt information was at the very least being drip-fed to the hierarchy.

This fear was heightened when a copy of the investigation file was shown to the clergy. The file named Fr Columba and a fellow monk -- thought to be still alive and both members of the Passionist Community at Cloonmahon Monastery -- as persons of interest. Although a confidential document, as soon as the file was sent to Garda Headquarters, a request was made for a second copy which ended up in the hands of a senior member of the clergy at Clonliffe, Dublin.

Some members of the Passionist Order, which holds the chaplaincy to the Garda Siochana, refused to greet or acknowledge Det Inspector Dan Murphy (the lead investigator) or his team for years afterwards.

Following an appearance on the Gerry Ryan Show yesterday, I was contacted by a retired senior member of the Murder Squad who also cast new light on the case. He told me that when Fr Columba was moved to Dublin, Det Inspector Murphy asked the officer to interview him.

The former senior-ranking detective told me: "I got this instruction to reopen the file, to bring Fr Columba in. But the night before it came from the very top that I was to forget about it. I had been told that Fr Columba was in Mount Argus (the Passionist monastery in Harold's Cross, Dublin) and was told to prepare my interview. My chief superintendent then came to me and said to call it off. I was told this was coming right from the top."

The monk who gave Fr Columba an alibi was of even more interest -- particularly since an eyewitness put him in the green van on the day Bernadette vanished. For four weeks gardai couldn't find any evidence to reveal where Bernadette had been taken. The only clue was the green van seen by several witnesses at the critical time.The priests at the monastery were reluctant to give any insight into who had the van in the crucial period.

In fact, statements about the whereabouts of the van were changed at least once -- putting Fr Columba in the monastery when an earlier statement showed that none of the priests had seen him at the vital time. While no trace of Bernadette had been found, detectives led by Det Insp Murphy and Det Sgt (later Chief Supt) John Courtney were convinced the monastery held the key to her whereabouts.

I uncovered a garda statement from the time. In it a senior officer wrote to his superiors: "This van is not satisfactorily accounted for during the period of 4.30pm to 7.30pm. Since the investigation resumed, suspicion has hardened towards the Monastery van having been on the Lisaneena Road (where the bike was found) on that afternoon. We are not entirely happy about the Cloonmahon Monastery van. However, in the absence of more tangible evidence, there is relatively little that can be done by way of inquiry regarding this van -- irrespective of what our feelings are."

Officers told how their attempts to put more pressure on the priests were thwarted by the garda authorities, afraid of upsetting "Mother Church".

Four months after the disappearance on August 4, 1970, a family working in a bog 15 miles away near Boyle, Co Roscommon, found Bernie's body. Both legs and the right arm were missing. All that remained were the skull, neck, rib cage, part of the spine and left arm. All clothing below the waistline was missing. The only way of identifying the body was discovery of three of her religious medals at the site.

Det Insp Dan Murphy confided in colleagues he was convinced Fr Columba was the killer. Another monk in the monastery may also have been involved in the subsequent cover up, he believed. It was the great regret of his career not to have solved the case.


Brighid Calls For Reopening of Connolly Murder Case
Sunday Independent, December 06 2009, by JIM CUSACK

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.


40 Years on from Bernadette's murder, Sisters Still Seek Truth
Evening Herald, April 16 2010 By Cormac Byrne

TOMORROW will mark the 40th anniversary of the brutal murder of Bernadette Connolly.

Her sister Anne Guilfoyle will mark the tragic milestone by placing a marble memorial at her graveside near Collooney, Co Sligo.

After the Herald facilitated calls for justice from Bernadette's sister Kerrie Aldridge earlier this year, Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy announced that there would be a garda review of the case.

Bernadette Connolly was 10 years old when she went missing on April 17, 1970 after cycling from her home to collect groceries.

Her partially clothed and mutilated body was found three months later, 15 miles away in an area of bog-land.

Gardai had two suspects in the case: a priest, Fr Columba and a second person, a monk.

An eye-witness saw the monk in a green van close to the scene of Bernadette's disappearance on the day she went missing.

Fr Columba died in 2001, but the monk is still alive.

He is suspected of having invaluable knowledge about the case, and is resident in Ireland but it is unclear as to whether the man has been interviewed as part of the investigation.

Ms Guilfoyle was three years older than her sister when she was abducted and brutally murdered and her quest for the truth is as strong as ever.

"Forty years is a lifetime but we still want to know the truth," she said.

She also called for personal effects that mysteriously disappeared during the course of the investigation.

"We would love to have Bernadette's medals back," she added.

"They, along with the bicycle, were evidence but they seem to have been lost."

Murder squad detectives at the time became increasingly interested in the movements of a green van that was seen in the area at the time of the girl's disappearance.

The green van belonged to the monks at Cloonamahon but no member of the religious order ever admitted to driving the van.

Retired officers have said claimed there was obvious evidence of collusion between senior gardai and the Church, including the fact that vital evidence mysteriously vanished.

Former gardai have also described how they were instructed not to arrest the main suspect, Fr Columba.

Ms Guilfoyle has given up hope of catching her sister's killer but would like to see someone held accountable if collusion between the gardai and the Church was proved.

A garda spokesperson confirmed that the review was "ongoing" and that a liaison officer is keeping in close contact with the family.

- Cormac Byrne