RTÉ settles priest defamation case

Thu, Nov 17, 2011, 00:00

The libel action involving a priest wrongly accused by RTÉ of having sex with a minor and fathering a child by her has been settled.

Fr Kevin Reynolds, the parish priest of Ahascragh, Co Galway, was “grossly defamed” by RTÉ in the Prime Time Investigates broadcast on May 23rd, according to the terms of settlement which were read out in the High Court. The case had been due to go to a four-day trial.

The amount of damages was not disclosed but RTÉ has agreed to pay both compensatory damage and aggravated damage to the priest.

RTÉ has also agreed to publish the first correction order under Section 30 of the Defamation Act 2009 which will be broadcast on RTÉ’s Prime Time and Morning Ireland programmes and published in the Connaught Tribune, The Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner.

The lengthy terms of settlement, which took 20 minutes to read and stretched to 35 paragraphs, was read out in front of the reporter Aoife Kavanagh, the executive producer Brian Páircéir and the Prime Time Investigates editor Ken O’Shea. The producer/director of the programme Mark Lappin has since left RTÉ.

Reading out the terms of settlement, Jack Fitzgerald SC, counsel for Fr Reynolds, said reporter Aoife Kavanagh had confronted the priest after first communion mass and accused him of sexually abusing a teenage girl in Kenya in 1982, fathering a child by the woman and abandoning the child.

Despite the priest’s repeated denials, an email from Fr Reynold’s former bshop Philip Sulumeti in Kenya and his offer to take a paternity test, the programme was broadcast.

Mr Fitzgerald said RTÉ and Aoife Kavanagh had choices prior to the broadcast and the ones they made was “utterly misjudged and wrong” and had an “utterly devastating impact” on his life.

RTÉ was afforded every opportunity to review its position and remove any reference to Fr Reynolds from the programme.

Some 519,0000 viewers watched the Prime Time Investigates programme which was heavily promoted in advance, and the allegation was treated as fact on the following morning’s Morning Ireland programme which had 338,000 viewers. It was also broadcast worldwide on the internet, he said.

Fr Reynolds had suffered “irreparable damage” to his reputation, his life was utterly altered, and he was removed from his home and his community, Mr Fitzgerald told the court.

Despite an apology, which was first broadcast after Fr Reynolds took a paternity test, the priest still feels “very upset by the damage to his good name, reputation and network of relationships both here and in Africa”.

He felt personally damaged as a result of the defamation and the scar remains, Mr Fitzgerald said.

His 40th year as a priest has been marred by the enormity of the “abhorrent crime of which he was publicly and globally accused”.

Fr Reynolds was hugged by members of his family as he left the court. He did not comment.

However, Fr Sean McDonagh, on behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests who backed Fr Reynolds in his action, said they were delighted that he had been “utterly vindicated”.

“It’s his day. I’ve accompanied him from the very beginning and the pain and trauma being forced out of his parish, forced to stand down as a Catholic priest. It was vile and it was appalling,” he said.

Fr McDonagh said neither Fr Reynolds nor the association had the means to take a High Court libel action and could not have done so without the case being taken on a pro-bono basis by Robert Dore & Co solicitors.

Mr McDonagh stressed that it was a “good day for Catholic priests”.

He cited the recent Amarach survey which suggested that 47 per cent of people thought 20 per cent of priests were paedophiles when the reality was the figure was closer to 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

“Catholic priests have got a very bad presentation, unbalanced to the extent that the public think one-in-five priests is a paedophile,” he said.

“If it happened to journalists, you would all be up in arms. I hope this is a wake-up call. We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re just asking for truth, fairness and justice.”