Few shed a tear for Father Christopher Clonan when it emerged in 1998 that he had died suddenly while visiting his family in a suburb of Melbourne.
His congregation in Coventry remembered him as the paedophile priest who had abused altar boys during the 1970s, before fleeing Britain for Australia when the allegations first became public in 1992. At the time the scandal rocked the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and did the clergy's image irreparable damage.
In January this year, the church finally agreed to accept responsibility for the misery caused by the rogue priest and paid record compensation to one of Clonan's victims. At last it seemed that one of the most unholy chapters in the Catholic Church's history could be closed.
But the case of Fr Christopher Clonan is far from over. Police now suspect that the priest may have faked his own death to escape extradition to Britain and detectives from the West Midlands are seeking authority to travel to Australia to investigate exactly what happened to him. They are unconvinced by a death certificate and pictures taken of the priest lying in his coffin - both sent to Britain by Clonan's family. One legal source close to the case said that it was only time he had ever seen a corpse laughing.
Police suspicions over Clonan's death are shared by many of those who had the misfortune to serve as altar boys in Coventry 30 years ago. Simon Grey, 39, was one of those abused by the priest in the church presbytery, where Clonan would ask altar boys to help him "robe up". Grey says: "I never truly believed the story 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 I think he probably is."
Clonan, originally from Ireland, joined the Catholic Church after a career as a builder and small-time property developer. In the early 1970s he settled in Coventry, where he became assistant parish priest at Christ the King Church in Coundon. He became well-known in the community, using his building skills to oversee a church-buildings construction programme, and he gained the sobriquet "Father Fix-it".
His congregation remember him as an extrovert, larger-than-life character who enjoyed a drink and a cigar and was the licensee of the Christ the King Social Club. He was also known as an enthusiastic golfer.
The local paper, the Evening Telegraph, says of him: "He had a robust turn of phrase more often associated with workers on a building site. Although nominally second in charge at [the church] he was undoubtedly the most powerful and charismatic church figure in the Irish-Catholic community in Coundon."
But underneath his exuberant and outgoing personality, he harboured a sinister desire to abuse young boys for his own gratification. Those who fell victim to Clonan have had their lives irreparably harmed. Says Grey: "I didn't tell anyone what had happened, but all my life I have been asking myself questions, like whether I might be gay. I know now that I'm not and I now have a loving family."
But in the early 1990s Grey was still struggling to come to terms with the abuse, which took place over a six-year period. "I couldn't hold down a job. The longest one I ever had was as a refuse collector, which lasted for six months. In the end I set myself on fire, suffered full-thickness burns, and spent another six months in hospital."
Around this time, some of the boys abused by Clonan had started to talk publicly about what had happened to them at Christ the King Church. A public outcry was inevitable and Clonan fled to Ireland where, in 1992, he was discovered in Dublin, where he had booked in to a Catholic hospital specialising in psychiatric counselling. In an attempt to bury his past for good, Clonan then flew to Sydney. British and Australian detectives tried to follow him, but by the time they began their investigations the trail had gone cold.
Nevertheless, it was always suspected that he had moved to Melbourne, where his mother and brother were living. Then, in 1998, his brother posted the local newspaper a death certificate which supported the family's claim that he had died suddenly while staying in Melbourne.
Now West Midlands police say this is not enough to close the case. A spokeswoman said yesterday: "We are still looking for this man with a view to seeking his extradition to this country. We are aware of suggestions that he may be deceased but we have not been able to confirm his death."
The Clonan scandal not only rocked the Catholic Church, but may eventually cost it millions in compensation, too. In January, senior bishops agreed to pay record damages of £330,000 to Grey in an out-of-court settlement. Four more claims arising out of allegations made against Clonan are still to be heard and, if successful, could leave the church facing a £2m compensation bill.
Lawyers believe the Grey case is important because, for the first time, the Catholic Church has been forced to acknowledge the long-term consequences of abuse. Grey suffered serious psychological damage, which led to him becoming an alcoholic and later spending time in prison for violent behaviour; his damages were assessed on the basis of the long-term harm that the abuse caused him.
The church admitted that it had failed to take proper steps to protect children from Clonan. Grey's solicitor, John Housden, says the Birmingham Archdiocese accepted liability for breaching its duty of care to Grey between 1975 and 1981 - after it was aware of sex-abuse allegations: "A senior priest had been notified of the abuse. He either did nothing, or he may have advised the church authorities, and if he did, they did nothing."
Housden confirms that at least one of the claimants, who is now in his early 30s and has suffered severe psychiatric illness, is likely to claim as much as Grey in compensation. The victims have had to wait nearly 30 years for their complaints to be properly heard. And even after they began legal action the case was held up for three years while representatives of the Archdiocese of Birmingham are understood to have challenged the degree to which the abuse caused the psychiatric and social problems Grey experienced in adult life.
But none of Clonan's victims will reach closure on their ordeals until it is established beyond doubt whether the fugitive priest is dead or alive. Grey says: "I know of people who still have drug and alcohol problems because of the abuse they suffered from the church. I've managed to break with my past, but I know their lives are still pretty awful."Reuse content