Ex-Catholic archbishop sues RTÉ over Mission to Prey show

Richard Burke wrongly depicted as a paedophile in Prime Time special, counsel says

A former Catholic archbishop who resigned over breaking his vow of celibacy has sued RTÉ for defamation, alleging he was wrongly depicted as a paedophile in the 2011 Prime Time Investigates programme Mission to Prey.

Co Tipperary-born Richard Burke, now aged 66, had intimate sexual relations with Dolores Atwood, who featured on the RTÉ programme, but not when she was under age, his counsel Jack Fitzgerald SC said.

Mr Burke "is not a paedophile", had never in his life ever molested a child and, "at the end of case you will be convinced that is the truth", counsel told a High Court jury.

As an archbishop who had sexual relations with Ms Atwood, she had “leaned” on him and he paid her “a large sum of money”, about €176,000, but that was something not mentioned in the programme, counsel added.


The jury would hear of pressure Ms Atwood put on Mr Burke such that he became “terrified” of the exposure of the relationship he had with her, counsel said.

The jury would hear Mr Burke paid large sums to her due to pressure she was putting him under.

There would be evidence of “further threats”, including giving him four options for her to keep quiet, one of which was to pay another €50,000 over five years on top of the €176,000 already paid to her.

Mr Fitzgerald was opening the action by Mr Burke against RTÉ alleging defamation arising from the Mission to Prey programme, broadcast on May 23rd, 2011.

Several days

The case, before Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley and a jury of six men and six women, is expected to last several days.

RTÉ denies defamation and pleads the contents of the programme related to Mr Burke are true.

The Mission to Prey programme was played to the jury during the opening of the case.

In his opening, Mr Fitzgerald said Mr Burke, from Clonmel, resigned in May 2010 as archbishop of his diocese in Benin city in Nigeria because he did not comply with his commitment to celibacy as a cleric.

Mr Burke had let down himself, his family and church because of non-compliance with his celibacy commitment.

He was ashamed of that, remorseful, humiliated and in pain because of the resignation, “but he is not a paedophile”.

Mr Fitzgerald said RTÉ was standing over the allegation made by Ms Atwood in the programme, which was about child sex abuse.

The programme, in summary, said Mr Burke is a paedophile and he could not think of anything worse to say of anybody or of any institution more powerful than RTÉ to say that of anyone, counsel said.

After that, he could not think of anything worse than the way RTÉ was now presenting the matter in court.

In its defence, RTÉ was saying, ‘Yes, we said he is a paedophile on Prime Time and we still say he is a paedophile’, he said. “They repeat it in the High Court, that is why this case is so serious.”

‘Bad standards’

The jury would hear of “the most outrageously bad standards of journalism” and would be “astounded” RTÉ was standing over this.

Mr Fitzgerald said what happened on the programme in relation to Mr Burke was “grossly unfair”.

It was said he had declined to be interviewed but while RTÉ had admitted in its defence this was not true, it had made no correction and no admission to the public, counsel said.

The only evidence provided on the programme that Mr Burke was a paedophile came from Ms Atwood, and it was “grossly unfair” she was presented on the programme as someone establishing a fact without contest, rather than someone making an allegation, he said.

Mr Burke did have a sexual relationship with her but not when she was under age or 13 or 14 as the programme recounts, he said.

Counsel said the programme was extensively advertised before being broadcast and discussions about it on the RTÉ Frontline programme the same night, and on Morning Ireland the next day, had accepted the material in it as established facts.

That added to the defamation and the damage inflicted on Mr Burke, he said.

Mr Burke, counsel outlined, had joined the Kiltegan Fathers in 1966, was ordained a priest in 1975 and sent to Port Harcourt in Nigeria before being sent to Wirri in Nigeria, where he remained for 22 years.

He was in Ireland between 1990 and 1996 in Maynooth, took up office as Bishop of Wirri in 1997 and in 2007 was appointed Archbishop of Benin city. He resigned on May 31st, 2010.

Counsel said Ms Atwood was born on August 16th, 1969; Mr Burke first met her in either 1986 or 1987 and did not know her when she was aged 13 or 14.

While she had described on Prime Time an event that happened to her when she was aged 13 or 14 and seemed to suggest it happened “out of the blue”, that was not correct, he said.

Mr Burke would say an event similar to that did happen, but not when she was the age she claimed.

Definite facts

When an allegation is being made both sides should be heard, but RTÉ promoted Ms Atwood from a person making allegations to a person recounting actual definite facts, counsel said.

RTÉ had not said “come in and give us your account” and that was “not fair, right or correct journalism”.

Counsel read correspondence from lawyers for Mr Burke sent to RTÉ from November 2011 which stated Ms Atwood had wrongly alleged she was sexually abused by Mr Burke when aged 13.

He had consensual sexual relations with her when she was aged 21 and she was the instigator of the relationship, it was stated.

The correspondence said Ms Atwood was motivated by malice, was totally unreliable, sexually promiscuous and prepared to lie about Mr Burke to destroy his reputation.

It was stated he was “an easy target”, and RTÉ was prepared to take advantage of that. The letters sought a retraction, apology, a correction order under the Defamation Act 2009, damages and costs.

Mr Burke was described in the correspondence as a man living alone outside London, surviving on social welfare and very vulnerable.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times