Ex-archbishop denies he sexually exploited ‘vulnerable’ child

Richard Burke denies he had sex with Dolores Atwood at age 14 in Nigeria

Former archbishop of Benin, Richard Burke. Photograph: Courts Collins

Former archbishop of Benin, Richard Burke. Photograph: Courts Collins

 

A former Catholic archbishop has denied a suggestion by lawyers for RTÉ the reason a woman was “deeply troubled” was because he had sexually exploited her when she was “a vulnerable child”.

Co Tipperary-born Richard Burke (66) said he had not had any sexual encounter with Dolores Atwood until 1989 when she was aged 20 and he 40.

When they first had sex, she was very sexually experienced and his interaction with her could not have warped her later relationships, he said. When she was aged in her thirties, she told him uninvited and in detail about her sexual experience, he added.

He agreed he had other sexual encounters while he was a cleric, including with a married Nigerian mother of eight. He also said he had “embraced” and “improperly touched”, but had not had sex with, a sister of Ms Atwood.

Mr Burke, a memer of the Kiltegan Fathers who served as a priest, and later as Bishop and Archbishop in Nigeria after being ordained in 1975, remains under continuing cross-examination in his action against RTÉ.

RTÉ denies he was defamed in the Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey programme broadcast on May 23rd, 2011. Mr Burke claims the programme wrongly depicted him as a paedophile.

The jury has been told Dolores Atwood alleges Mr Burke first had sex with her when she was aged 14.

On Monday, the jury heard recordings of phone conversations of November 2007 between Mr Burke and Chris Atwood, husband of Dolores Atwood, where Mr Atwood asked the cleric about the relationship between himself and Ms Atwood.

Earlier, in reply to Paul O’Higgins SC, for RTÉ, before the recordings were played, Mr Burke said he had been wrong about some of the dates he mentioned during the phone calls.

During the calls, Mr Burke told Mr Atwood that he and Ms Atwood had an intimate relationship “going back 22, 23” years.

While from his own point of view, there had been no relationship for years, “from Dolores’ point of view, it has never stopped in her heart”, Mr Burke said. It had recently taken a turn that was “not good at all” and he felt he was being blackmailed by her, he said.

When Mr Burke referred to making payments to Ms Atwood, Mr Atwood said his wife had described Mr Burke as “bribing” her. Mr Burke said he totally rejected that. Mr Burke said he believed Ms Atwood “is totally obsessed with me and has been for years”.

When Mr Atwood asked about his wife’s concerns relating to Mr Burke and her sister, Mr Burke said he had embraced the sister, that could be interpreted as in an inappropriate way, but he had not had sex with her.

When Mr Atwood asked Mr Burke about his wife’s claim she was 14 when she and Mr Burke first had sex, Mr Burke said that was untrue, he got to know Ms Atwood about 25 years ago and she was 19 or 20 when he first had an intimate relationship with her. He could be “out a year or two”.

Mr Burke said Ms Atwood had accused him of paedophilia which was “utterly untrue”.

When Mr Atwood said Mr Burke’s conduct was wrong and very troubling, Mr Burke said it was “totally utterly and completely wrong before God and before man”.

Mr Atwood also accused Mr Burke of encouraging the relationship with Ms Atwood for 25 years and controlling and manipulating her.

Can you not understand the damage you have done to people’s lives?” he asked Mr Burke.

Mr Burke, he added, was in a position of power and authority when he met Ms Atwood, a “young girl” facing trauma in her family and life.

Mr Atwood said his wife does not know what a healthy and loving relationship is because of Mr Burke.  Mr Burke’s actions had consequences and he seemed to have compassion only for himself, Mr Atwood said.

Mr Burke replied some of the things Mr Atwood had said were not true but added: “I have no defence.” He was profoundly sorry for all that had happened to Ms Atwood and his own part but he had not set out “to control”, he said.

Earlier, in reply to Mr O’Higgins, Mr Burke said he had had an “encounter” with a married Nigerian mother of eight but he could not remember when that occurred. He agreed sleeping with married women could adversely affect family relationships. He said he had not intended to do so and what he did was “absolutely inappropriate, stupid and wrong”. 

He agreed he maintained contact with Ms Atwood after she married in 1995 and moved from Nigeria to Canada. He agreed this involved deception. The “original deceiver” was inside the marriage and that was Ms Atwood herself, he said.

After Ms Atwood moved, she was going through a difficult time, he said. He regarded her as a friend and she “certainly regarded me as a friend, and more”. There was an “easy, open relationship between us” which sometimes became “amorous” over the phone.

Asked was this his only amorous relationship, he said he had “experiences with other people” and Ms Atwood “reacted badly” to that. When put to him he had had experiences with “quite a lot” of other people, he said “some other people”.

Counsel said the number of people was “in the teens”, adding he was referring to the number, and not age.

Asked had he ever cared about anything “except your own skin”, Mr Burke said he had genuinely wished Ms Atwood would have a happy marriage and leave the past behind her. He did not accept he regaredd her as having become “inconvenient”.

The context of this relationship was he genuinely felt under pressure and under attack from Ms Atwood, he said.

Earlier, asked what age he considered it was morally wrong to have sex, Mr Burke said, because he was a priest, any age was wrong and “grossly unacceptable for me”. He said consensual sexual relationships between adults are entirely different from being accused of having a sexual relationship with a 13- or 14-year-old.

When counsel said he was asking the jury to award him money, Mr Burke became clearly angry and, in a raised voice, said that was “a lie”. He had not come to court for money but “because RTÉ accused me of having a sexual relationship with the girl when she was 13 or 14” and “gave me no opportunity to answer that allegation”.

He came to court because there was “some deep voice within me saying a wrong has been done to you”, an allegation had been made “which I know before God and the world is not true”.

The case continues before Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley and a jury.