Church under suspicion in mystery of missing priest

It was the Cold War era and a Polish priest in Bradford suddenly vanished. But who killed Father Henryk Borynski? Crime Correspondent Jane MacDonald reports on a new quest for the truth in a case that has baffled police for 50 years.

It was 7.30pm on a summer's night in July 1953 when Fr Henryk Borynski took a mysterious phone call at his Victorian lodgings in Little Horton Lane, Bradford.

Supper had finished and as his landlady walked to the dining room to clear the dishes, she heard the priest whisper in his native Polish: "Dobze idzie" – meaning "All right, I go."

Soon after Fr Borynski put on his hat and coat and went out. He was seen to turn right into Little Horton Lane and head in the direction of St Luke's Hospital.

Then he disappeared without trace – and what happened to him remains a mystery to this day.

At the time many believed he had been abducted and murdered by a ruthless Communist hit squad whose views he openly opposed.

That theory might seem a little fanciful today.

But in the dark days of the Cold War it made perfect sense, particularly within Bradford's Polish community. Stories of spies and secret police were rife among terrified Poles who had fled the Iron Curtain country and arrived in the city to begin a new life.

But could the blame lie at the door of someone far closer to home?

A former leading Yorkshire detective now believes it could.

Retired West Yorkshire Det Chief Supt Bob Taylor recently revisited the case and came up with two shocking conclusions – that another Polish priest, Canon Boleslaw Martynellis, played a part in Fr Borynski's murder and that senior church officials were involved in a cover-up.

To understand how this might have happened, the clock must be turned back to 1953 when the two men came together.

Canon Martynellis was the first parish priest to Bradford's 1,500-strong Polish community. He worked hard and was highly regarded for a time, but his relationship with his flock eventually soured.

Fr Borynski was brought in to replace Martynellis, but the older priest refused to go.

Mr Taylor believes that Canon Martynellis, driven by professional jealously, helped Communist agents in Bradford's Eastern European community lure Fr Borynski to his death.

"Most of the first-hand evidence has gone but I'm sure Borynski was lured to a secret meeting place, kidnapped and then murdered," said Mr Taylor.

"I believe Canon Martynellis may have been told that this was the way to keep his old job and that he did not realise what he was getting involved in until too late."

The same morning that Fr Borynski disappeared he had taken a phone call at his lodgings which he said had been from Canon Martynellis, inviting him to his house. Canon Martynellis later denied making the call.

That evening came the second phone call which prompted Fr Borynski to leave his house, with 10 shillings (50p) in his pocket. He had left behind all his belongings, his 250 savings and his prayer books.

In a strange twist, Canon Martynellis was found collapsed at his home a month later. A message was spelt in match sticks on his desk, Milcz Klecho – meaning, keep quiet priest.

He claimed two mystery men had forced their way in and hit him over the head, but police did not believe his story. They interviewed Canon Martynellis several times until they were warned off by the church.

Two years later Canon Martynellis died of a heart attack.

The Catholic Bishop of Leeds in 1953 was John Carmel Heenan. He later became Archbishop of Westminster and was made a Cardinal.

At Canon Martynellis's funeral in October 1955, he said: "Towards the end of his life Canon Martynellis was a bewildered man. There have been dark hints made that this great priest may have been in some way in possession of knowledge about the disappearance of Father Borynski.

"I want to say that when I heard...of this absurd suggestion, I sent for the chief of police and told him to dismiss from his mind any unworthy thought about this priest."

The mystery of what happened to Fr Borynski is still a talking point among the Polish community.

Former choirboy Zed Sinicki, said Canon Martynellis had a "dour" personality while Fr Borynski was outgoing and a good organiser.

He added: "When Fr Borynski came everyone seemed fired by enthusiasm and we were told that this was the new parish priest. Some were supporters of Canon Martynellis, some of them were supporters of Fr Borynski, and there were rumours of clandestine societies."

The search for Fr Borynski was huge. It involved MI5 and Interpol and spread across Europe and into the United States.

There were numerous "sightings" in Poland, as well as Cardiff, Manchester and London.

In 1962, newspapers carried a story that Interpol was investigating claims by a Russian assassin, who had defected to West Germany, that he had murdered the priest. He allegedly told Bonn Police that he had poisoned Fr Borynski with cyanide and buried the body on Ilkley Moor.

A fortnight later, the story was dismissed by the Bradford chief constable as "a waste of time."

"I'm convinced senior church officials knew more than they told police at the time," said Mr Taylor.

"I believe Martynellis helped Communist agents lure Fr Borynski into a trap. He wanted rid of his rival and he was exploited by Communists with a political motive.

"When the plot ended in murder, the reasons for Borynski's disappearance stayed secret."

They remain so to this day.

n Find out more about the re-investigation of Father Borynski's disappearance on Inside Out, BBC1, Monday, January 27, at 7.30pm.