Over the years I have been involved in the investigation of many murders which resulted from terrorist shootings and bombings, and deaths in violent situations. Such events are without question, terribly traumatising for those who are left behind – the family and friends of the person who died. My involvement has very often come years after the event which caused such pain. That pain often has the effect almost of freezing a person in the immediate trauma of the murder or death. There are questions which can be so very difficult for the bereaved person to ask, particularly when that person is the husband, wife, mother, father, or sibling of the person who died. The moment of death is a very sacred one, even when the cause of death is sudden and inexplicable violence.
Northern Ireland has seen the cost and the benefit of the presence of a priest on so many occasions. I think most people will remember the terrible murder of the two corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes by the Provisional IRA on March 19, 1988 in West Belfast. Fr Alec Reid CSsR of nearby Clonard Monastery attended them as they lay dying. His prayers at that most savage moment were enormously important for so many. Earlier two Belfast priests died attending to their parishioners who had been shot. Fr Hugh Mullan was shot dead attending a man who had been shot during the Ballymurphy massacre in 1971. Fr Noel Fitzpatrick died in 1972 when, accompanied by a parishioner Paddy Butler, who was waving a white handkerchief, he attempted to reach wounded men during sustained and heavy gunfire. I remember one of our priests telling me how Fr Fitzpatrick had not been on duty that day but had offered to go out when the call came, rather than stay and eat his tea. He never came back. He died as did Paddy Butler and three teenagers Margaret Gargan (13), David McCafferty (15) and John Dougal (16). These priests and so many others like them across the world working in all sorts of difficult situations, were brave men living their call to sacramental ministry without counting the cost, following the example of their divine Redeemer.
During my work I have repeatedly been asked two questions about deaths in such circumstances: did he or she suffer? Was there a priest there?
It can be profoundly difficult to provide the answers to those questions. The question of whether and for how long a person suffered can only be answered by those who are medically qualified, and the answer may cause profound and lasting distress, yet it must be answered. A positive answer to the second question may have the effect of alleviating some of the pain, for, as Catholics, we believe that where the last rites, the final sacraments of a person’s life can be administered, they will bring comfort and grace to the person who is dying. The Church teaches that the effects of this Sacrament are the strengthening and comfort of the soul, the remission of sins, and the possible restoration of bodily health.
Where serious injury or death has been caused by terrorist acts, as was the recent death of Catholic MP, Sir David Amess, the situation will be profoundly difficult. Equally difficult will be the situation where someone is seriously injured or dies as a result of other violent crime. To their credit, the police both north and south in Ireland seemed to manage such circumstances well, particularly during the Troubles. However, when Sir David died the priest who rushed to attend him was denied access. Perhaps there can be some learning from this terrible case which might ease the path of others in the days to come.
We are told that we live in a post-Catholic world. I do not believe that, but I do accept that there will be situations in which police officers and others attending such a crime scene may have no faith at all, and not understand why the presence of a priest is so important. There is an opportunity now to make formal provision for such events in the guidance offered to emergency personnel so that the request by a priest does not come as a shock and does not result in a refusal of access.
In almost any situation in which someone has suffered a terrible injury there is the possibility that a crime has been committed and therefore, of course, the location of that injury will become a crime scene. Current police procedures are very specific about the management of such scenes and actions taken in those first minutes may be critical to resolve any crime which has been committed. The responsibility lies with the first officer(s) to attend. Access to such a scene is necessarily limited. A scene log will be created to manage and record all activities within the crime scene. However, a variety of people do gain access – they include ambulance and medical personnel, undertakers, photographers and scenes of crime officers. They all have a legitimate purpose in being at the scene, but not all of those purposes relate to the maintenance of the integrity and provenance of any material which may be recovered from it. Crime scene officers are required to ensure that persons entering the scene are wearing suitable protective clothing to prevent contamination of the scene, and to ensure that they are protected from any hazards present.
So, it is possible to provide safe access for clergy which will not in any way contaminate or inhibit an investigation.
Action can be taken now by An Garda Siochana and the PSNI to clarify the rules on attendance by priests to minister at such crime scenes. Such action should be taken to ensure that priests can administer the last rites at this most sacred moment, to someone who is seriously injured, dying or dead. This will not only benefit the dying person, but also their family and friends, who may be enormously comforted by the fact that a priest was allowed to attend them. Otherwise, sadly, what happened to David Amess and his family may very well happen to someone else when another atrocity occurs.