'Paedophile priest' may have faked his own death

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The Independent Online

Detectives from the West Midlands have flown to Australia to investigate whether a priest who fled from a child abuse inquiry has faked his own death.

Father Christopher Clonan, who went on the run after leaving his post at a Catholic church in Coventry in 1992, is accused of molesting altar boys.

The priest travelled to Australia where his brother claims he died in 1998 and was cremated. But in recent months there have been unconfirmed sightings of Fr Clonan in Birmingham. West Midlands Police are also concerned about apparent discrepancies on Fr Clonan's death certificate.

On Wednesday two officers arrived in Melbourne to question relatives and investigate the reported death. They are also expected to travel 90 miles north to the town of Bendigo, where Fr Clonan adopted a false identity, that of a property developer called "Christie Oliver". Oliver is his middle name.

The assistant priest left his job of 20 years at the Christ The King Roman Catholic Church, in Coundon, Coventry, in July 1992 during a police inquiry into allegations that he had molested boys in his care.

A warrant for his arrest was issued and the wanted man fled from Coventry to Ireland before going to Melbourne. The Australian authorities refused to grant him a visa to stay, but he later returned and adopted the false identity.

Police have revealed that eight boys - aged between eight and 17 at the time of the alleged offences - made accusations against the clergyman.

In January this year the Catholic Church agreed to pay Simon Grey, 38, a former altar boy, £330,000 compensation, believed to be the highest amount for a sex abuse case, after he alleged that he suffered years of abuse by Fr Clonan.

The whereabouts of the priest remained a mystery until July last year, after a two-year investigation by British detectives, Interpol and Australian Federal police who traced him to Melbourne.

Fr Clonan's brother, Andrew Clonan, who lives in Melbourne, told officers that the priest had died of a brain haemorrhage in 1998 in Bendigo.

He released a copy of the death certificate that stated that Christopher Oliver Clonan, born in Clonard, County Meath, had died on 22 October, 1998, and was cremated at Bendigo Crematorium on 27 October. He would have been 56 years old.

After arriving in Melbourne in 1992, Fr Clonan apparently found temporary homes at Phillip's Island off the coast of Melbourne and then at Lake Eppalock in upstate Victoria.

He later moved to the former gold mining town of Bendigo where he used skills from his previous career as a builder to develop an apartment building in the high street of the Kangaroo Flats area.

For several years he let out rooms to students in the block and was an occasional stallholder at the town's Sunday market where he sold timber products.

Andrew Clonan claimed that his brother died unexpectedly. He said his wife identified the body in the presence of police and several other witnesses.

The priest's funeral took place a few days later, he added. He said Fr Clonan was cremated - which is unusual as Catholics tend to prefer burial.

Federal police in Australia, who have been investigating the priest's whereabouts, believe he is dead and have handed the West Midlands force a dossier on the case.

But suspicions about the cremation and the death certificate were heightened by reports in a West Midlands newspaper that Fr Clonan man had been seen in the King's Heath area of Birmingham.

According to an unnamed source said to be close to the Catholic Church, the suspect is believed to be posing as a teacher and is travelling under an assumed name.

He has apparently been using an Irish passport bearing a new identity.

Priests at St Dunstan's Church in King's Heath are said to have reported seeing a man resembling Fr Clonan on several occasions over the past year. He is thought to have friends in the area.

A spokeswoman for West Midlands Police said yesterday: "Two officers are currently in Australia, where they are liaising with Australian police and conducting inquiries into the whereabouts of Fr Clonan."

Among the issues that the two officers, a sergeant and a superintendent, want to establish in Australia are whether there is any medical evidence linking Fr Clonan to the body that was cremated and what happened to the priest's estate and his personal effects after his reported death. They are believed to be interviewing Fr Clonan's friends and relatives.

Mr Grey, now aged 39, has little doubt that the priest is still at large.

He said: "I never truly believed that he had died suddenly in Australia, it just seemed too convenient.

"If you ask whether I think he's alive, I'd have to say that he probably is."