Outraged relatives of a notorious IRA bombing which claimed nine lives demanded a fresh investigation today after it emerged the police, Government and Catholic Church conspired to protect the prime suspect, a Catholic priest.
As well as the dead, 30 people were injured when three car bombs shattered the tranquillity of the village of Claudy, Co Londonderry, in July 1972 at the height of the Troubles.
Today a report by Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson exposed a damning cover-up between state and church that led to Father James Chesney being spirited across the border into the Republic.
Responding to the report, relatives of the victims accused the authorities of brushing the matter under the carpet and demanded the British Government conduct a fresh investigation.
Mark Eakin, who was blown off his feet in the blast that killed his nine-year-old sister Kathryn, said: "I feel I have been let down by the Government that I pay my taxes to.
"They have not performed at all, they have totally washed their hands of Claudy."
Colin McClelland, whose great uncle James was killed, said: "Where this has got to go now, it's got to go to Westminster, who ultimately made the decision to brush Father Chesney under the carpet, forget about this situation and get the man out of the country."
Mr Hutchinson's report revealed that Fr Chesney, who police believe was an IRA commander who drove the lead bomb car on the morning of the attack, was moved after secret talks between the then secretary of state William Whitelaw and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway.
The two men discussed the atrocity after being approached by a senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer who was apparently reluctant to arrest a priest for fear of inflaming the volatile security situation.
Nearly 100 people died in July 1972, making it the most violent month in the most violent year of the Troubles.
Mr Hutchinson revealed that traces of explosives were found in Fr Chesney's car in the months after the attack and there was intelligence that the cleric continued to be involved in IRA activities up until his death from cancer at the age of 46 in 1980.
Three children were among the Claudy dead. No one has ever been charged with the murders.
But the current head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean Brady, today denied the church had been involved in a cover-up.
The actions of Cardinal Conway or any other church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney, he said.
"This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney's lifetime.
"If there was sufficient evidence to link him to criminal activity, he should have been arrested and questioned at the earliest opportunity, like anyone else."
None of the relatives of the Catholic victims attended a press conference in a village hall in Claudy after the families were briefed on the report's findings by the ombudsman's team.
Mr Eakin, a Protestant, called for a renewed effort to catch those bombers who may still be alive, adding there was "no way" Mr Whitelaw made this decision on his own. "It had to come from higher up," he said.
He added: "I would like to ask the British Government if they would now step in and investigate this thing further, give the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) of today, who are still trying to investigate, more resources."
In relation to the interaction between the RUC, Mr Whitelaw and Cardinal Conway about Father Chesney, the ombudsman's report stated that "the actions of the senior RUC officers, in seeking and accepting the Government's assistance in dealing with the problem that Father Chesney's alleged wrongdoing presented, was by definition a collusive act".
Mr Whitelaw and Cardinal Conway have also since died.
In his conclusions, the ombudsman found that the RUC decision not to investigate Father Chesney was "wrong" and "contrary to a fundamental duty of police to investigate those suspected of criminality".
Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said the Government was "profoundly sorry" that the victims of the bombing and their families had been denied justice.
A spokesman for the PSNI, which eight years ago conducted its own review of the RUC handling of the case, acknowledged that opportunities to detain Fr Chesney were not taken and that "more could and should have been done at the time".
The Claudy outrage took place during a month which also witnessed the end of a temporary IRA ceasefire, the Bloody Friday bombings, Operation Motorman and widespread civil disorder and violence.
Six months earlier British soldiers shot dead 13 civil rights protesters in nearby Londonderry.Reuse content