Friday 24 May 2019

Garda authorities and their affiliation to mother Church played a key role in case

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.

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