This is what happened. For over two weeks in May of this year RTE One
advertised over and over again an upcoming Prime Time programme, called
Mission to Prey. It purported to unveil the sexual abuse of children by
Irish priests in Africa. The gist of the promo with its heavy-handed title
was that Irish missionaries, rather than preaching the Good News of Jesus
Christ, were ‘preying’ sexually on young children.
Inevitably, a collective breath was held by anyone associated with missions
and missionaries. Thousands of Irish missionaries, for more than a century,
had worked and were working in Africa, establishing parishes, building
schools and hospitals, feeding the hungry and, at great personal cost,
dedicating the best years of their lives to Africa and the missions.
Now, it seemed that, if the adverts for Mission to Prey were to be any
indication, the extraordinary commitment of heroic Irishmen and women to
Africa and the Christian message was to be blown out of the water. The gist
of the adverts repeated over and over again was that Irish missionaries were
on a mission to ‘prey’ rather to ‘pray.’ It seemed, in anticipation, an
indictment of the work of thousands of Irish missionaries over more than a
However, when the programme was broadcast, it seemed that the preceding hype
was just a way of distracting attention from the absence of any significant
content. At a time when, according to a recent survey, 42% of Irish
Catholics believe that 20% of priests are pedophiles (the real figure is
around 3%), the prospect of a huge audience for another sexual abuse
documentary about priests was too delicious a prospect for RTE to resist –
whatever the evidence. The present rabidly anti-clerical climate when
priests are automatically deemed guilty regardless of the evidence and the
certain knowledge that the Church would not support him convinced RTE that
they were pushing an open door. The creed in RTE, one journalist admitted,
is that ‘all priests are fair game.’
But back to Prime Time. Of seven alleged cases of child abuse discussed in
the programme, five were already reported on, one was dead – a Christian
Brother (and his congregation vehemently asserts that no allegation was ever
made against him) – and the remaining one was against Fr Kevin Reynolds.
Because of the dearth of actual news, the allegation against Kevin Reynolds
was the lynch-pin that, it seemed, would hold the programme together.
Kevin Reynolds was parish priest of Ahascragh in Co Galway. He had spent
most of his life working as a missionary in Kenya and ten years or so ago
returned to work in Ireland. From a news point of view, the allegation
against Reynolds seemed rich pickings. The accusation was that he had raped
a minor in 1982, fathered a child with her and subsequently abandoned her
and the child. A High Court judge had stated in the initial proceedings that
he couldn’t imagine in present circumstances a greater accusation against a
priest in Ireland.
RTE’s reporter, Aoife Kavanagh, had dramatically door-stepped Reynolds
outside his house as he made his way home from a First Communion Mass in his
parish, confronting him with the accusation that he was effectively a
criminal, a paedophile and a rapist.
The problem from RTE’s point of view was that none of that was true. None of
it. Reynolds was completely innocent. After the interview he contacted RTE
denying the allegations, and offering to take a paternity test to prove his
innocence. His bishop in Africa contacted RTE staying that Reynolds’ record
was impeccable. Even RTE’s legal advisors seemed unhappy about the
programme. Yet RTE refused to listen to a series of compelling reasons for
not broadcasting the programme. In the prevailing climate, they just
couldn’t resist it.
So the PrimeTime Investigates programme went ahead, and Reynolds was
immediately stepped down from his position. Luckily the Association of
Catholic Priests could source a high-powered legal team to take a case on
Reynolds’ behalf against RTE for defamation. And luckily the legal team
graciously agreed to take the case pro bono. And last week, after
protracted negotiations, RTE fully and unreservedly apologised to Reynolds,
acknowledging that it had grossly defamed him, and accepting that the
programme should never have been broadcast. It has agreed to pay ‘a
significant sum’ in compensatory and aggravated damages and to pay the costs of the trial.
Interestingly RTE has reacted in a way they have so trenchantly criticized
in others. Like other intstitutions under pressure they circled the wagons
and protected their members. Pat Kenny’s defence on his radio programme was
that it must be appreciated how embarrassing the mistakes were for Aoife
Kavanagh, as if a journalist’s embarrassment by any stretch of the
imagination could somehow be compared with the mental anguish and torment of
a priest who was unjustly humiliated and reviled before his family, his
parish and the whole country as a pedophile and a rapist.
Vincent Browne was another, from the wider journalistic community, who
rushed to Aoife Kavanagh’s defence as a journalist. One wonders what his
reaction would be if a journalist had called him a child abuser, a liar and
a rapist before over 500,000 viewers on PrimeTime and 338,000 listeners on
Morning Ireland. the following day.
The RTE authorities, singing from the same hymn-sheet, announced that none
of those responsible for the broadcast would be disciplined as it would be
better in the circumstances for people to learn from their mistakes than to
be forced to resign! It was a self-serving and defensive response that will
not just return to haunt them but will effectively dent their credibility in
Imagine Pat Kenny suggesting that a bishop or a politician should resign
when RTE advances its own rules for its own people when it suits them.
Should that liberal attitude to learning as you go along not have applied to
the bishops who resigned, or indeed to Brian Cowen?
More disastrously for RTE, as many have pointed out in the last few days, if
Mission to Prey was so far from the truth, what kind of light does it throw
on other PrimeTime Investigates programmes, including States of Fear (1999)
and Cardinal Sins (2002).
The facts are these: Fr Kevin Reynolds was completely innocent (as RTE now
accept); the programme Mission to Prey should never have been broadcast (as
RTE now accept); the personal trauma and nightmare inflicted on Fr Reynolds
could and should have been avoided (as RTE now accept); and all the money
and apologies in the world can’t compensate him for the sufferings he has
had so needlessly to endure. And yet RTE’s ungracious apology, rushed
through so disrespectfully, indicates that they still have no real
appreciation of how they damaged Kevin Reynolds and broken the trust of
RTE’s big mistake, of course, was to presume that because Kevin Reynolds was
a Catholic priest and the Catholic Church was so weakened and damaged by its
failures in this area that the rights of individual priests could be ignored
Thanks to the personal courage of Kevin Reynolds, the resilience of the
Association of Catholic Priests, the legal professionalism of solicitor
Robert Dore, senior counsel Jack Fitzgerald and Frank Callanan and others,
Kevin Reynolds is not spending the rest of his life in a limbo situation
with his character destroyed, his reputation ruined, his work as a priest
over. And worst of all trying to live out his final years coming to terms
with the fact that he was completely innocent.
RTE should hang its head in shame. And so should all those (including Church
authorities) who automatically seem to believe that a priest is guilty until
the courts have proven his innocence. How many more priests are there whose
lives have been ruined?
This is what happened. For over two weeks in May of this year RTE One