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Journalist's fight to solve the murder of Fr Molloy

Gardai have reopened the case into the death of Fr Niall Molloy in 1985, but why has it taken so long, asks Maeve Sheehan

LAST week, a team of 10 detectives descended on the Offaly town of Clara hot in pursuit of fresh leads in the unsolved murder of a parish priest almost 30 years ago.

The priest was Fr Niall Molloy and his murder was a sensation during Ireland's GUBU years -- a time when the garda heavy gang roamed the street, the Catholic Church held sway and scandal was readily suppressed.

Fr Molloy's death was indeed a scandal. He died violently in the bedroom of his close friends, Richard and Teresa Flynn, on a summer's night in July 1985 in the midst of their daughter's wedding celebrations.

Nobody was ever convicted of his killing. Richard Flynn stood trial for manslaughter and assault but was found not guilty on the directions of the judge, who, it later transpired, was an acquaintance of the Flynns.

His death has remained a mystery for years. Allegations of a cover-up lingered but never seemed to come to anything. Fr Molloy's relatives campaigned for justice. Decades passed with seemingly little progress. For many years it seemed that silence had settled over the scandal.

So, when Detective Superintendent Christy Mangan and his "cold case" team at the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigations parked in Tullamore to examine new evidence, Fr Molloy's relatives would be forgiven for asking: what took so long?

The lines being pursued by detectives are not flimsy. Detectives are hoping to speak to new witnesses with potentially crucial information about the unsolved crime.

But, in a story already embedded with claims of a cover-up, one of the most shocking aspects of last week's developments was that they came about not as a result of the Gardai's efforts; they were due to the tenacity of a journalist with the Irish Independent, who was drawn to the story after a chance encounter two years ago and has doggedly pursued it ever since.

Over the past two years, Gemma O'Doherty has travelled the breadth of the country, knocking on doors, persuading people who had never spoken before to talk, hearing for the first time their long-held secrets about the priest's death.

Some people closed their doors to her. Others welcomed her in, eager to share what they knew. Astonishingly, many of them had never been spoken to by a garda.

Gemma could not publish most of what she was told because of legal constraints. But their accounts of what happened on the night of the priest's death and its aftermath were so compelling that she went beyond the call of journalistic duty to present a dossier of her findings to gardai.

She has given gardai the names of "about 50 individuals" she believes can help them. They include new sources whom she met during the summer. She introduced them to gardai, to whom they have given valuable statements. Their information, facilitated by Gemma, triggered the full-scale reinvestigation of the case last week.

To Gemma, a veteran award-winning journalist, the case of Fr Molloy is more than just a story. "From early on, it became clear to me this case was far from just an intriguing murder mystery. That is the reason I have not -- and will not -- let it go," she said.

"Members of six pillars of Irish society had questions to answer about their case. They belong to the Gardai, the judiciary and legal world, the political elite, primarily Fianna Fail, the Catholic Church, the medical fraternity and my own profession, the media. To this day, I am stunned at how some journalists turned their backs on such glaring inconsistencies at the time."

When Gemma started looking into the story, the facts that were already in the public domain came largely from the trial of Richard Flynn and the subsequent inquest. Some of the facts were perplexing, not least the relationship between Fr Molloy, a 52-year-old parish priest in Castlecoote, Co Roscommon, and the Flynns, who lived in Kilcoursey House on 60 acres in Clara.

Fr Molloy was a long-standing friend of Teresa and Richard Flynn, but he was closer to Teresa than to her husband. They had been friends since childhood and shared an interest in horses. The Flynns were well connected, part of the horsey set and with political friends too. Brian Lenihan Snr was a guest at the wedding party and, the next day, ate lunch with the wedding party -- hours before Fr Molloy's death.

For his part, Fr Molloy was a successful breeder of showjumpers. He and Teresa shared a bank account for buying and selling horses. He often stayed overnight at the house, where he had his own room.

On the July day he died, Fr Molloy was a guest at Kilcoursey for a wedding lunch for the in-laws of the Flynns' eldest daughter.

At about 1am, Fr James Deignan, the local parish priest, was called to Kilcoursey House. After 3am, Fr Deignan called on the local sergeant. He said: "There's a priest dead in the bedroom," he told him. It was a scandal and would have to be kept quiet.

The sergeant disagreed and went straight to the house.

Fr Molloy was dead, his body on the floor of the Flynns' bedroom. Blood seeped from his head. A streak of blood on the carpet suggested that the priest's body had been dragged towards the door at some stage. Teresa Flynn was hysterical and had to be sedated. The priest's watch was smashed, the hands stopped at 10.40pm -- almost five hours earlier. Richard Flynn said they had an argument over drink and he struck Fr Molloy in self-defence.

The story of the priest's murder caused a sensation. The Flynns went to France for a while. Soon after they returned, Richard Flynn was charged with manslaughter.

He went on trial before Mr Justice Frank Roe in June 1986, who was himself well known in horsey circles. He heard evidence from the State pathologist about Fr Molloy's head injuries and swelling to his brain. The priest had been struck five to six times.

Almost four hours into the trial, Mr Justice Roe told the jury to return verdicts of not guilty, acceding to defence claims that heart failure could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

The inquest into Fr Molloy's death took place after the trial. It found that Fr Molloy died of head injuries -- not of a heart attack. In a further twist, it later transpired that Mr Justice Roe knew the Flynns.

Fr Molloy's family's campaign for justice for the priest ebbed and flowed over the years with little success. That changed in the summer of 2010 when Gemma O'Doherty had a chance encounter with an individual who, it would appear, became her "deep throat" -- someone who felt that justice had not been done for Fr Molloy.

"Information given shortly afterwards by that person sent me on a long journey, but early on, it became clear that many people had something to hide. Mere mention of Fr Niall's name led to doors being slammed in my face and voices going dead at the end of the phone.

"It became clear that some of these individuals had never been properly interviewed by gardai at the time," she said. In Roscommon, she got a "very different welcome".

"In his tiny parish of Castlecoote, people spoke so fondly of Niall and said he was a brilliant, caring parish priest who had got involved in a very dangerous situation. He wanted out of it. His parishioners knew nothing close to the truth had come out," she said. "As I continued my probe, that became very obvious to me too."

The more she knocked on doors, the more she learnt, often taking off around the country from her home at night at a moment's notice to verify new pieces of information.

"Every time I got a new piece of the jigsaw, it slotted right in," she said. "By now, I had built up a team of contacts around the country -- this story has tentacles that stretch down the entire spine of the island, from Sligo to Galway, Westmeath and Longford, and down as far as Kilkenny -- a city which plays a leading role in the case. These individuals know who they are and when justice is finally served and the truth comes out, it will be thanks to them."

Gemma published her first major article on the Fr Molloy case in October 2010. Only a fraction of the information she had gathered appeared in print. But she believed she had enough information to warrant a thorough reinvestigation of the case by gardai.

She wrote to the then Garda Commissioner, Fachtna Murphy, met with his spokesman in Phoenix Park and gave the contents of her file to Detective Superintendent Christy Mangan.

She insisted on making a formal statement at Harcourt Terrace Garda Station, which took over four hours, and gave gardai the names of "about 50 individuals who have questions to answer and information to give".

She also met with Alan Shatter and Pat Rabbitte, now senior ministers in the Government, who promised a public inquiry when in government. Under pressure from Gemma and Fr Molloy's relatives, the Garda Commissioner set up an "examination" of the issues raised by Gemma's investigation. But nothing much seemed to emerge from their review.

The breakthrough came in recent months. "In the summer, I met new sources who were much closer to the murder than anyone I had met before. I introduced them to Christy Mangan and they have recently made valuable statements, which we hope will lead to convictions. I am not sure why the Gardai did not find these individuals during their 'examination'."

Given all she has unearthed, Gemma has established a compelling picture of what happened to Fr Molloy on the night he died. She revealed limited details last week in her articles in the 'Irish Independent'.

Fr Molloy was involved in a business deal with the Flynns and he wanted out of it. He consulted his solicitor about getting his money back, in what was described as an "anxious" visit. In the days before he died, the priest had a black eye. He named the perpetrator to his cousin.

Gemma O'Doherty learnt that the same individual had assaulted the priest, pushing him against a coffee table days before the murder. The perpetrator is still at large.

In another twist, some of Fr Molloy's valuables went missing after he died, including a horse and several paintings.

It is rare for a journalist to achieve what Gemma has: delivering fresh witnesses with key information to a garda investigation that had long ago ran cold. Gemma does not want to "become" the story. She turned the attention instead on another great journalist, the late Veronica Guerin, who was murdered by drug lords in 1996.

Veronica's experiences working on the Fr Molloy story before she died have confirmed to Gemma her own conviction that the case is a bigger story of State failures and complicity of well-connected people.

"At the time she was writing about it, Veronica told the Molloy family that two of her sources in Phoenix Park warned her away from the case and that she was 'walking on thin ice'," said Gemma.

"Veronica was shown the Molloy police file by her underworld source, John Traynor. He came to have it after it was stolen by his associate, Martin Cahill, from the DPP's office in 1987.

"The file contained handwritten letters from the trial judge Frank Roe to the then DPP Eamonn Barnes saying he knew the parties in the case. Two of the judge's former colleagues have confirmed this to be the case, and say Frank Roe, a keen horseman, knew the Flynns and Fr Molloy through fox-hunting circles.

"The week before Veronica was due to publish one of her stories on the case, the Sunday Independent flagged it. Days later, she received the first threat on her life when shots were fired through the window of her home," said Gemma.

"It's ironic that in the week Malcolm MacArthur was released, people have said to me this is like GUBU Part 2. To me, this case is in another league to the original GUBU and I think if Charlie Haughey were alive today he would agree with me."

Sunday Independent