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Monday 1 September 2014

Philip Ryan: Tom Savage needs to tell us why this is not a conflict of interests

RTE libelled Fr Reynolds and its chairman's PR firm had advised clergy on how to respond. How can this be right, asks Philip Ryan

Published 03/06/2012 | 05:00

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SMALL WORLD: Tom Savage and his wife, Terry Prone. The couple own the PR firm The Communications Company, which advised Catholic clergy in the wake of the 'Prime Time Investigates' programme that had been aired by the State broadcaster of which Mr Savage is chairman

TERRY Prone has stated that her husband, the RTE chairman Tom Savage, found out only last week that their public relations company coached religious orders on how to deal with the fallout from the controversial Prime Time Investigates programme.

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The high-profile television analyst said her husband did not know the Communications Clinic trained members of the Irish Missionary Union (IMU), including the head of Fr Kevin Reynolds's order, prior to the broadcast of A Mission To Prey.

She also said she had not spoken about the Fr Reynolds affair with IMU executive secretary Fr Eamon Aylward, despite striking up a "personal" relationship with the priest since the training.

However, National Union of Journalists Irish secretary Seamus Dooley said there was something "deeply uncomfortable" about the firm training the IMU and called on Mr Savage "to deal with this issue as a matter of urgency".

His sentiments echoed those of Senator John Whelan, who said he intends to ask Oireachtas Communications Committee chairman Andrew Doyle to recall Mr Savage before the panel to answer questions on his company's links with the missionary union.

The IMU first got wind of the Prime Time Investigates programme in December 2010, when missionaries in Africa told them an RTE reporter was asking questions about a number of priests.

Fearing a media onslaught similar to the one endured by the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) following the publication of the Ryan Report into clerical abuse, the union decided to call in professional help.

The Communications Clinic was the obvious choice for Fr Aylward -- not only for its high-profile reputation, but also because Tom Savage had previously been a man of the cloth.

Fr Aylward said: "We wanted to make sure it didn't happen to us and that's why we engaged Terry Prone. The Communications Clinic is one of the most reputable ones around, so that's why we chose them.

"And the fact that Tom was a priest would have made a difference to us as well because he would know where we're coming from."

It was an admiration reciprocated by Mr Savage, who told the Oireachtas Communications Committee two weeks ago: "The finest body of men I was ever with were men with a vocation to the priesthood."

In April 2010, five priests, including Fr Aylward and Fr Reynolds's superior in Mill Hill Missionaries, Fr Michael Corcoran, made their way to The Communications Clinic's office on Northumberland Road in Dublin.

At this stage the IMU and Mill Hill said they were unaware of allegations against Fr Reynolds, but Fr Corcoran attended the meetings because another priest from his order was due to be exposed in the RTE programme.

On Wednesday, Ms Prone was reported as saying she had one meeting with the IMU to advise on a specific aspect of the programme.

However, Fr Aylward told the Sunday Independent that he attended two training sessions and also revealed that Ms Prone was instrumental in preparing the organisation's statement on the day Mission To Prey was aired.

Ms Prone told the Sunday Independent this weekend she only realised the training sessions were held over two days when she checked her files after commenting to the press and said she helped prepare a "skeletal" press release for the union.

The media commentator stated categorically that she did not discuss these meetings with her husband.

However, she did develop a personal relationship with Fr Aylward following the media training conferences.

When asked had he spoken with Ms Prone since the programme aired, Fr Aylward said: "Apart from just personal stuff, no."

When pressed as to what he meant by "personal stuff", the cleric said: "I've called her up to wish her well various times. I have seen her on television -- that's all. Because she was very helpful to us at the time."

Ms Prone confirmed that she had spoken to the cleric since the training but said: "We wouldn't be talking on a weekly or monthly basis."

Fr Aylward was not as forthcoming about how much his organisation paid for the media coaching. He said: "That's a personal matter between us and the Communications Clinic. I wouldn't ask you the last time you had sex, that's a personal question."

A month after the training sessions on May 7, Aoife Kavanagh approached Fr Reynolds after a First Holy Communion service outside his parish church in Ahascragh in Co Galway.

Ms Kavanagh put it to the priest that he had raped a minor named Veneranda in Kenya and fathered her child, Sheila, while he was working in that country as a missionary.

The exact sequence of events following the ambush of Fr Reynolds in front of his parishioners is unclear.

The IMU stated that it was only after RTE had doorstepped the priest outside his church that it became aware of the allegations against him.

Fr Aylward said: "He wasn't on the radar before then. We heard about the doorstep down in Ahascragh. I think we heard from Mill Hill."

From the findings of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report, we know on May 11 RTE received a letter from Fr Reynolds's solicitors, denying all allegations made by Prime Time Investigates.

Writing in the union's annual report, released on the same day, IMU vice-president Fr John Guiney highlighted the "enormous" amount of time being spent on dealing with the Mission To Prey programme.

The next day, Prime Time Investigates contacted Mill Hill Missionaries, asking them to comment on the accusations that they were preparing to broadcast about one of their members.

Mill Hill responded on May 13, stating: "Fr Kevin Reynolds is a priest of good standing" and added that any allegations would be investigated according to church protocol.

Fr Reynolds then voluntarily stepped aside from his ministerial duties, pending an investigation into the claims of sex abuse, which would eventually be proven to be false.

Mill Hill Missionaries regional senior Fr Michael Corcoran said it was not part of the protocol for the IMU to be contacted about the Fr Reynolds affair but he believed the organisation would have been told of the pending allegations and of the priest's denials.

He said: "We wouldn't have contacted them officially but we meet so often, so in conversation you say to somebody, 'Our man, in this case Fr Kevin, has allegations made against him and we are following it up within the guidelines that have been laid down.'"

The IMU launched its 2011-2014 strategy review on May 16 and one of the main objectives stated in the manual was to "prepare for expose on RTE with members".

On May 18, Mill Hill Missionaries again wrote to Prime Time Investigates, this time extending Fr Reynolds's offer of a paternity test.

On the same day Aoife Kavanagh eventually replied to the initial letter from Fr Reynolds's solicitor with a further series of questions about the priest's time in Africa.

On May 22, the day before Prime Time Investigates was aired, the Sunday Business Post reported that Terry Prone was preparing the IMU for the backlash which would follow the programme.

Ms Prone said yesterday that neither she nor her husband saw this article at the time.

The next day, May 23, the show aired and the IMU released its statement, prepared by the Communications Clinic, which inherently accepted the allegations and roundly condemned the abuse as alleged by Prime Time Investigates.

Ms Prone states that at no stage before or after broadcast was she told by Fr Aylward or the IMU that Fr Reynolds had offered to take a paternity test.

A month after the show had aired, RTE eventually took up Fr Reynolds's offer to take a paternity test.

It was another two months before Ms Kavanagh returned to Africa to encourage Sheila to provide a genetic sample from the child who she claimed in the programme had been fathered by him.

The first test could not be certified because the child's mother did not bring identification and it was only on September 20 that an official confirmation came that Fr Reynolds was not, in fact, the father.

Fr Reynolds was eventually vindicated by the High Court in November and RTE was forced to pay out over €1m in damages and legal costs.

Tom Savage said it was only in September last year that he became aware of any issues surrounding the Mission To Prey broadcast.

He has stated he did not know that his wife gave media training to the missionary orders whose members would be implicated in RTE's expose on child sex abuse in Africa.

He did not know that one of the priests, who RTE alleged had raped a minor and fathered a child, had categorically denied the heinous accusations being made against him.

Nor did he know know that the priest so strongly protested his innocence that he had even offered to take a paternity test.

Unsurprisingly, Ms Prone stood by her husband last night and denied that either of them had been involved in any conflict of interest.

"For Tom Savage to be accused of a conflict of interest means that he would be breaking the law -- breaking company law and breaking laws governing RTE. He has never and would never do this," she said.

Ms Prone added: "He obeys all of the regulations -- there is simply no question of this -- and for a phrase peddled by somebody under privilege to be now peddled in newspapers is not acceptable."

Sunday Independent

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