Former archbishop claims RTÉ falsely depicted him as a rapist

Richard Burke alleges defamation over RTÉ Mission to Prey programme

Former catholic archbishop  Richard Burke is suing RTÉ for defamation. Photograph:  Collins

Former catholic archbishop Richard Burke is suing RTÉ for defamation. Photograph: Collins

 

A former Catholic Archbishop claims an RTÉ programme falsely depicted him as a “sexual predator” and a “rapist” who took advantage of a vulnerable teenage girl in Nigeria who regarded the church as a “sanctuary”.

The Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey programme broadcast on May 23rd, 2011, wrongly meant Richard Burke sexually assaulted Dolores Atwood in a hospital bed in Nigeria when she was 13 and had had sex with her when she was aged 14, Jack Fitzgerald SC said.

Mr Burke (66), from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, would say he had had consensual sexual relations with Ms Atwood when she was an adult but this programme wrongly depicted him as a paedophile, counsel said.

RTÉ had sought information from Mr Burke about how many people he had sex with but his consensual sexual relations with other women were irrelevant as this defamation case is “about paedophilia and nothing else”.

He will say he is not a paedophile, he “abhors it, it offends him and he will tell you the truth”, counsel said. “This man is a human being and he has a reputation.”

The action by Mr Burke over alleged defamation in the Mission to Prey programme is into its second day. The case is being heard before Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley and a High Court jury of six men and six women.

The jury has heard Mr Burke, from Clonmel, a member of the Kiltegan Fathers order who was ordained a priest in 1975, had 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.

In court on Thursday, Mr Fitzgerald said RTÉ knew money had passed from Mr Burke to Ms Atwood before it broadcast the programme. Counsel said he had mistakenly told the jury on Wednesday Ms Atwood had sought an additional €50,000 on top of €176,000 he had paid her and wanted to clarify the €50,000 was included in the €176,000.

At the time of the broadcast, RTÉ knew her first complaint to Mr Burke’s order, the Kiltegan Fathers, was made in 2005 when she was aged 36, Mr Fitzgerald said.

That complaint was of an affair with an archbishop but, in March 2008, she “suddenly remembers that was child sex abuse”, counsel said. RTÉ knew that “red flag” was there, that “huge question of credibility was there” but there was “no fairness” and RTÉ decided to “give it a lash”, that Mr Burke would not sue.

Asking how many people he had sex with was an effort to terrify and embarrass Mr Burke and to stop him suing RTÉ, counsel said.

As a result of the programme, Mr Burke experienced deep pain, humiliation and shame and “wished he was dead”, according to his claim against RTÉ read to the jury.

It is claimed Mr Burke felt he would be shunned by all of society and that his life altered utterly as a result of the defamation. He had complied with the Kiltegan Fathers procedures, voluntarily participated in risk assessment in the UK, underwent a course in Washington, admitted breach of celibacy and stepped down from his ministry.

As a result of the programme, he also claims he was injured in his credit and reputation as a priest, brought into public scandal, odium and contempt and suffered irreparable loss and damage.

In his claim, he alleges the words complained of in the programme wrongly meant he was a rapist who had imposed himself on a person who was under age, that he was a paedophile who manipulated and groomed a girl under age and was guilty of gross breach of trust and egregious breach of duty, that he scandalously abused a relationship of trust and his position of power.

He alleges the programme also wrongly meant he had acted in a despicable manner and sought to take advantage of a vulnerable child in a hospital bed whose parents were divorced and had exploited her view of the church as a sanctuary. He also claims the broadcast wrongly meant his ministry was a “sham” and he had brought disgrace on his order, on Irish missionaries and his family.

Mr Fitzgerald said RTÉ was in its defence standing over the claim his client was a paedophile but had denied that certain words meant what his client alleged, including his claim some words meant he was a rapist, had repeatedly imposed himself on a person under age, was guilty of a criminal offence and colluded in a cover up.

Counsel said the RTÉ programme made a clear association between Mr Burke and known notorious child abusers like Fr Brendan Smyth.

It was also untrue to say Mr Burke and his order declined to be interviewed for the programme, counsel said. Mr Burke was given no opportunity to answer the allegations made by Ms Atwood which he was unaware were to be made until the night of the broadcast. He was “horrified” by what it said about him.

Mr Burke claimed RTÉ had failed to investigate Ms Atwood’s claims properly and failed to deal fairly with him and used selective coverage to imply a cover up, counsel said. RTÉ had not referred to matters it knew about concerning an investigation by the Kiltegan Fathers which found “no cover up”. An investigation by the Kiltegan Fathers made no finding that Mr Burke engaged in child sex abuse, counsel said.

RTÉ had said reporter Aoife Kavanagh tried to contact Mr Burke various times between March 14th, 2011, and May 4th, 2011, prior to the broadcast but could not reach him, counsel said. RTÉ said she had placed calls to Kiltegan residences in Ireland, London and US and was told he was not there and could not be located. During a phone call in early May 2011 with Fr Tom Kiggins of the Kiltegan Fathers, she asked Fr Kiggins to tell Mr Burke RTÉ would like an interview with him and had emailed Fr Kiggins with questions about Ms Atwood’s claims asking that he reply prior to the programme. RTÉ also said the programme had said Mr Burke continues to claim his relationship with Ms Atwood was consensual and began when she was an adult and had also said the Kiltegan Fathers had found no evidence he engaged in child sexual abuse.

The case continues.