How did RTÉ get it so wrong?

RTÉ still has questions to answer about its defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds. By Vincent Browne.

In March or April of this year, a person approached RTE with sensational claims concerning a priest of the Mill Hill Missionaries, Fr Kevin Reynolds, who had been a missionary in Kenya from 1971 to 2004 and who was then parish priest of Ahascragh, Co Galway.

It seems that the person approached was the journalist Aoife Kavanagh, a Morning Ireland presenter who also worked with Prime Time.

The claims were essentially that Reynolds had had sex with a woman named Veneranda, who was a minor at the time (1981/1982) - which in this country is statutory rape - and had a daughter by her, named Sheila, who was subsequently abandoned by Reynolds. These claims, we now know, were entirely false.

However, at the time, the RTÉ Prime Time Investigates people were impressed by their informant, and felt they had no reason not to believe what they had been told.

Prime Time Investigates had also received information from "a very credible third-party source, substantiating the allegations that Fr Reynolds is the father of Sheila", according to an email sent by Kavanagh to the solicitors then acting for Fr Reynolds, last May 18.

In addition, according to the same email, Prime Time Investigates had further information "confirming" that Reynolds had contributed financially to the education of his supposed daughter, Sheila. That email implied further serious allegations, albeit conveyed by means of a question. Again, we now know that this information was incorrect.

Arising from the receipt of this information, a Prime Time Investigates team travelled to a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and interviewed Veneranda. They also met and interviewed her daughter, Sheila, who by now was aged 29.

As the broadcast programme said, Veneranda informed them she had met Fr Reynolds when she was working as a maid in a teacher's house in the west of Kenya. Reynolds, she said, was a regular visitor at that house and, one day, when the teacher was not present, she claimed the priest forced her to have sex with him.

Veneranda told them she had confided to another teacher what had happened after she had realised she was pregnant. That other teacher, she said, had told her later that he had gone to Reynolds and spoken to him about the allegation; that Reynolds had more or less confirmed Veneranda's story; and that Reynolds said that if news of the pregnancy became known, he would never be able to show his face to anyone again.

Veneranda said she had given birth to the child alone, without help. She said she had cut the umbilical cord herself and had wrapped the baby in banana leaves. All of this was aired in the Prime Time Investigates programme.

One key question is whether the Prime Time team sought to speak to anybody else to whom Veneranda might have spoken at the time, to confirm what they had been told by a woman who (presumably) none of the team had met previously, and of whose reliability, therefore, they could not have been certain.

Nevertheless, the Prime Time Investigates team were by then convinced they had sufficient evidence to broadcast the item, because of the apparent veracity of Veneranda's account of what had happened, the apparent credibility of the original informant and the apparent corroboration a third party had provided. This was even though the original informant was merely passing on information he or she had obtained from another source, and the supposed corroboration was also of a third-party nature.

On returning to Ireland, the Prime Time team went a step further. They decided that, instead of approaching Fr Reynolds in the normal way and inviting him to respond to the information they had received, they would approach him following a First Communion ceremony at the church in Ahascragh on the afternoon of Saturday, 7 May.

The film crew that accompanied Kavanagh to Ahascragh filmed part of the First Communion ceremony - without the permission that would be usual in the circumstances - and then approached Fr Reynolds in the car park afterwards. He was asked about having sex with Veneranda, but replied that he had never heard the name. He categorically denied ever having had sex with Veneranda, or that anyone had had a child by him.

Following the churchyard confrontation, Reynolds instructed Fair & Murtagh, a firm of solicitors in Mountbellew, Co Galway, who wrote to the head of broadcasting in RTÉ. They referred to the churchyard interview; repeated the denials Reynolds had made; warned that any broadcast of such allegations, or of the interview with Reynolds, would constitute a gross defamation; and said that if these allegations or any part of them were broadcast, defamation proceedings would ensue immediately.

Although the letter was addressed to the RTÉ "head of broadcasting'" (in fact, there is no such position), a reply came by email the following day, 18 May, from Aoife Kavanagh. It was copied to Brian Páircéir, head of the Prime Time Investigates unit. The tone of parts of the letter suggests that there was a strong legal input, presumably from the RTÉ solicitor's office.

The email response stated that RTÉ intended to broadcast a programme focusing on the issue of missionary priests and brothers and incidents of sexual misconduct over a period of years in Africa. It stated: "We intend including serious allegations about Father Reynolds in this programme."

It also stated that it had recorded an interview with Veneranda who had said that, when she was a teenage girl, she had had a sexual encounter with Fr Reynolds, become pregnant and had given birth to a baby girl, now named Sheila.

It went on to say: "Your client should know that we have been given an account by a very credible third party source, substantiating the allegations that Fr Reynolds is the father of Sheila. Furthermore, your client should also be aware that we have other independent evidence confirming that he contributed financially to the education of his daughter, Sheila, and was made aware she was his daughter."

The email then repeated some of the questions that had been put to Reynolds in the churchyard, along with some other queries, one of which seems to have implied further serious allegations, albeit conveyed by means of a question. The letter ended: "We would strongly urge Fr Reynolds to reconsider his denials even at this late stage." It was signed: "Aoife Kavanagh, journalist, Prime Time Investigates."

Fair & Murtagh replied with a reiteration of the denials and, in respect of the additional implied allegation, stated: " [This] was not put to him during the course of your interview with him [at the church]. If you have specific details or allegations to put to our client regarding this allegation, please let us have details of same as, again, our client is anxious to deal with each and every allegation which is being levelled against him."

The letter also stated that Reynolds was withdrawing from Church ministry while the investigations were being investigated. It repeated the intention to issue proceedings if any of the material referred to was broadcast.

Included in that letter was a reference for Fr Reynolds from Philip Sulumeti, the bishop of the diocese where he served. The bishop said he had known Fr Reynolds personally from 1971 and, during all the 32 years while there, Reynolds had never "been involved in any kind of abuse, scandal or controversy whatsoever".

The programme was broadcast on 23 May.

Three days after the broadcast of the programme, Aoife Kavanagh replied to the solicitors again, stating: "Prime Time is satisfied that it can stand over each and every allegation against your client in Veneranda's programme which aired on Monday, May 23 last." Specific details of the additional allegation were never put to Reynolds or his solicitors.

Three days before the programme was broadcast, Kavanagh had emailed Bishop Sulumeti, stating that RTÉ had "very credible information" that, a number of years after the birth of Sheila in 1982, the bishop had been made aware of the "fact" that Kevin Reynolds had fathered Sheila, and that Sulumeti had been struck by the resemblance between Reynolds and his "daughter". It was also suggested that, through another Irish priest, Reynolds had been advised by the bishop to pay money towards his "daughter's" education. The bishop replied two days before the broadcast saying: "I categorically deny these allegations", and repeating that Reynolds had been an "exemplary" priest.

A further crucial element in the story is that before the programme was broadcast, the Mill Hill Missionaries had made RTÉ aware that Fr Reynolds was willing to undergo a paternity test to prove he was not the father of Sheila, as alleged. It seems that RTÉ still believed this was a bluff and that, if a test did proceed, it would prove them correct.

An action for defamation was not issued on behalf of Fr Reynolds until more than a month (17 June) after the broadcast of the programme, during which time he changed solicitors from Fair & Murtagh to Robert Dore in Bridge Street, based near the Four Courts in Dublin 2.

On 23 June, Dore wrote to the RTÉ solicitor, stating that he was acting for Fr Reynolds and repeating the denials concerning sexual contact with Veneranda or having ever fathered a child by her.

Dore stated further: "To establish this [the denials], my client is prepared, and indeed is most anxious, as a matter of urgency, to undergo a paternity test. This will involve taking DNA samples from him, Veneranda and Sheila, and my client is prepared to travel to Kenya, if necessary, for the purpose of having the paternity test carried out."

Dore went on: "A paternity test is now the sole definitive means left to Fr Reynolds, whereby he can definitely vindicate his character, which was impugned with such ferocity by your programme." He asked RTÉ to arrange the relevant tests for Veneranda and Sheila, as a matter of urgency.

Anne McManus of the RTÉ solicitor's office replied on 27 June, acknowledging receipt of the letter and stating that she was taking her client's instructions in relation to the paternity test. The statement of claim (the outline of what was complained of and the effect this had on Fr Reynolds, plus claims for damages) was delivered to RTÉ by courier on 29 June.

The same day, McManus replied to Dore saying RTÉ was agreeable "in principle" to the paternity test and was making enquiries about it.

The following day, McManus wrote again, stating: "My client instructs that it is fully satisfied that it can stand over the allegations made against your client." She said RTÉ would be drafting its defence to the statement of claim shortly, and would be seeking further details about the complaints. In the event, the defence was not issued for several months. Dore wrote back the same day, emphasising that Fr Reynolds wanted to clear his name as soon as possible.

This writer understands that the RTÉ programme-makers were convinced that the paternity test would confirm Reynolds as the father of Sheila. This absence of concern seems to have been shared by senior management.

On 7 July, McManus told Dore that RTÉ had retained the services of Ormond Quay Paternity Services to carry out the test and would pay the cost of the test. She suggested that Fr Reynolds should contact the company to arrange the test, and said RTÉ was making similar arrangements with Sheila.

Curiously, the letter also stated: "No information will be communicated about the test to any third parties." This was even though the whole point of the test was to make the outcome known publicly.

In a letter dated 12 July, Dore made this same point.

Delays arose over RTÉ informing Ormond Quay Paternity Services that it would pay for the tests, and Dore sent further letters complaining about the delays and confirming that Reynolds had done the test at 11am on 14 July.

Up to that point, it seems there was a belief in RTÉ that the DNA test offer was merely a delaying tactic and that, ultimately, Reynolds would find an excuse not to take the test. After 14 July, that was clearly not the case, yet RTÉ remained confident about the truth of the allegations it had broadcast. In correspondence with Dore, it continued to plead "logistical difficulties" in having the tests carried out in Kenya.

On 29 July, Dore wrote again complaining about the delays. RTÉ replied on 3 August, saying it was using its "best endeavours" to have the paternity test carried out as soon as possible.

There was then a surprising development. On August 3, Fr Reynolds was given a handwritten letter written by Sheila, dated 11 July, 2011, and delivered to the Mill Hill Missionaries in Nairobi.

The letter stated: "Dear Father, on behalf of my mother and I, I would like to make an apology towards the issue at hand concerning my biological father. I have done various deep investigations and have found out the truth about myself. I humbly request this matter to come to an end because Fr Kevin is not my biological father and I have found out who he [the father] is. Therefore, I am not willing to take a sample of DNA test and more interviews concerning this issue.

"Thanks very much for your concern towards me. Yours faithfully, Sheila Mundi."

The letter was authenticated in Nairobi as coming from Sheila. It was sent to the order's headquarters in London, and then on to Dublin.

Aside from the assertion that Reynolds was not Sheila's father, its major significance was that she was reluctant to take the DNA test.

Dore wrote again on 25 August, complaining about the further protracted delay on the paternity test and about RTÉ's failure to deliver a defence.

On 26 August, Trish Whelan of the RTÉ solicitor's office wrote to Dore, stating that the DNA tests had been completed and that the results should be available "in the next two weeks".

There was then a further curious development. On the morning of September 6, an Irish Independent journalist phoned Fr Reynolds to say that he had heard from someone in RTÉ that the results of the paternity test were negative. It transpired that RTÉ had received the result of the paternity test on the afternoon of 2 September, yet had failed to make Fr Reynolds or his solicitor aware of this. Instead, the information was leaked to a journalist.

RTÉ later explained that there was a technical issue to do with the test, so it might have to be redone. Sheila underwent a second paternity test on 15 September or the following day, without any notification to Fr Reynolds or his solicitor.

Arising from the outcome of the paternity test, the Mill Hill Missionaries told Fr Reynolds he no longer had to withdraw from ministry. However, he was not then reinstalled as parish priest of Ahascragh.

On 28 September, the RTÉ solicitor's office wrote to Dore, saying: "I am advised that RTÉ wishes to apologise to Fr Reynolds for the statements complained of, and to express its sincere apology for the undoubted damage which it has done to his reputation. While the statements were made at the time in good faith, they have obviously caused him great anguish since the broadcast."

Dore replied: "It is astonishing that your client should see fit to assert in the same breath [as the apology] that the statements were made at the time in good faith. They were made in the teeth of Fr Reynolds' denials on camera, the correspondence of his solicitors, and Fr Reynolds' professed willingness to undergo paternity tests."

An extensive and abject apology was read at the beginning of the Prime Time programme on Thursday, October 6, at 9.30pm, and again on RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland the following day at 8.40am.

A High Court hearing was scheduled to start on November 17 to decide what damages should be awarded to Fr Reynolds. It seems that RTÉ made a lodgment in court before the hearing to encourage Fr Reynolds to settle the matter. If a plaintiff is awarded lower damages than the amount lodged, the plaintiff must pay the legal costs from the time of the lodgment.

The lodgment is likely to have been €1 million and the settlement slightly higher than that - plus, of course, legal costs, which could have run to half a million euro.

The following questions arise for RTÉ:

  • Why was Kevin Reynolds approached in a church car park without any notice of the issues that were to be put to him? Why was he not informed in writing in advance or in a private meeting?
  • Once the offer of a paternity test was made on behalf of Reynolds, why was the programme not delayed until such a test had taken place?
  • Who in management knew of the paternity test offer? Who was involved in the decision to proceed with the broadcast before the results of a paternity test?
  • Were the RTÉ lawyers consulted about the programme before it was broadcast and, if so, what was their advice? If they were not consulted, why not?
  • Why did RTÉ not respond to the Reynolds solicitors' query about "other serious allegations", and why were these not put to Reynolds?
  • Once proceedings were issued after the broadcast, were the RTÉ Authority and Curran then informed, given the seriousness of the issues? If so, what investigations did they institute? Who in RTÉ management knew about the arrangements for the paternity test?
  • Why were there such inordinate delays by RTÉ in arranging the paternity tests?
  • Once Sheila Mundi's letter, denying Reynolds was her father, became available in early August, who in RTÉ knew of this? What investigations were undertaken at that stage into the programme?
  • Once the negative results of the paternity test became known to RTÉ on the evening of 2 September, why was Reynolds not told immediately?
  • Why were formal inquiries into what had happened not instituted immediately - if they had not been previously instituted? Why did it take until last Tuesday for that to happen, given that nothing new emerged in the meantime?
  • When a spokesman for RTÉ was asked on 17 November whether heads would roll in RTÉ as a result of this affair, and replied: "Rolled heads don't learn anything", was he speaking with the authority of Noel Curran and/or the RTÉ Authority?
  • When the spokesman said the same day that only the recommendations arising from inquiries would be published, was he speaking on behalf of the Authority and director general?
  • What was the RTÉ Authority told from the time the programme was broadcast, and why did it not order an external inquiry earlier?

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