RTÉ to pay damages to priest over abuse libel
RTÉ HAS agreed to pay a significant sum in compensatory and aggravated damages to Fr Kevin Reynolds under a settlement of his High Court action for defamation arising from the broadcaster’s Prime Time Investigatesprogramme “Mission to Prey”.
It also apologised to the priest in a lengthy statement read in court. The sum to be paid was not disclosed in court but it is believed Fr Reynolds will receive more than €1 million, including costs.
The Mill Hill Missionary Society priest secured a correction order from the High Court under section 30 (1) of The Defamation Act 2009, which requires publication of the correction of a defamation.
Fr Reynolds (65), parish priest of St Cuan’s, Ahascragh, Co Galway, had sued RTÉ after a broadcast of the Prime Time Investigatesprogramme on May 23rd, 2011, which purported to deal with the alleged abuse of children and teenagers by Irish missionaries in Africa. Allegations concerning Fr Reynolds were also discussed on the Morning Irelandshow on Radio 1 the following morning.
Yesterday, in a statement on behalf of RTÉ read before Mr Justice Eamon de Valera by Jack Fitzgerald SC, for the priest, the broadcaster said it fully and unreservedly apologised to Fr Reynolds, acknowledged it grossly defamed him, and said the programmes ought never to have been broadcast.
The Prime Time Investigatesprogramme published a number of wholly untrue allegations about Fr Reynolds, including that he raped a teenage girl in Kenya in 1982 while working as a missionary, fathered a child with her and abandoned her and the child, named Sheila, the statement said.
The allegations were put to Fr Reynolds by a Prime Timereporter who interviewed him in his parish on May 7th, 2011, two weeks before the broadcast. Fr Reynolds denied all the allegations and his solicitors contacted RTÉ on May 11th, repeating his denials and demanding the accusations and film not be broadcast and that he be given an immediate retraction and apology.
On May 18th, 2011, a Prime Timereporter contacted Fr Reynolds’s solicitors and stated the broadcaster had a very credible third party source and other independent evidence that the priest had contributed financially to the education of his alleged child.
Fr Reynolds’s solicitors repeated his denials. On May 20th, 2011, RTÉ received an e-mail from Bishop Sulumeti of the diocese of Kakamega in Kenya, where Fr Reynolds had worked, describing Fr Reynolds as “an exemplary priest” and denying the allegations.
The statement said that in the 16 days between the interview with Fr Reynolds and the broadcast, RTÉ was afforded every opportunity to review its position and remove any reference to him from the programme. It had ample opportunity to verify its “very credible third party source”, but did not take such steps and instead chose to proceed “in the teeth of firm denials by Fr Reynolds and his former Bishop in Kenya”.
In the wake of the broadcast, Fr Reynolds was removed from public ministry and his home and labelled “a criminal, a paedophile and a rapist”, the statement said.
On June 23rd, 2011, Fr Reynolds told RTÉ he would undergo a paternity test to vindicate his character but, on June 30th, RTÉ wrote it would stand over the allegations made in the broadcast. The paternity test proved conclusively Fr Reynolds was not the father of the child Sheila.
The priest issued defamation proceedings but RTÉ continued to defend its position in seeking to assert an entitlement to broadcast the programme on public interest grounds, the statement said.
A defence was ultimately not filed and on September 28th, RTÉ offered to apologise to Fr Reynolds. Despite the broadcasting of the apology in October, Fr Reynolds said he felt personally damaged as a result of the defamation.
The court heard Fr Reynolds’s 40th year as a priest had been marred by the enormity of the crime of which he was accused.
In the statement, RTÉ accepted the choices it made prior to the broadcast in the way in which the case was approached, and the manner in which the paternity test was addressed subsequent to the broadcast, were “utterly misjudged and wrong and have had an utterly devastating impact on Fr Kevin Reynolds”.