Thursday 22 March 2018

No winners as RTÉ settles libel case with ex-bishop

High Court battle between broadcaster and former priest comes to abrupt end

Dolores Atwood with her husband Chris speaking to the media after the case was settled.
Dolores Atwood with her husband Chris speaking to the media after the case was settled.
Former Archbishop of Benin, Richard Burke, leaving the Four Courts yesterday.
Kevin Bakhurst speaking outside the High Court yesterday. Photo: Collins
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

Normally in a defamation battle, there is a clear winner and a loser. More often than not, there are no real winners at all, such is the emotional and financial (as well as publicity) toll placed on those who turn to the courts to resolve their disputes.

Litigants roll the dice in the belief, if not hope, that their version of events will prevail. And they fight to win, not to have allegations aired and left suspended without a judge or jury deciding whether their version is more believable.

That's what makes the settlement between a Catholic Archbishop Emeritus and RTÉ all the more unusual.

Richard Burke, a former Archbishop of Benin in Nigeria, sued RTÉ alleging the national broadcaster had wrongly branded him a paedophile in the highly controversial 'Mission to Prey' programme in May 2011.

The stakes were high for Mr Burke, a Kiltegan priest who resigned as Archbishop of Benin in 2010 over his failure to obey his vow of celibacy. But they were arguably even higher for RTÉ which had to pay a €200,000 fine to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland over its 'Mission to Prey' programme which libelled Kevin Reynolds, a Catholic missionary priest.

This was in addition to damages, estimated between €750,000 to €1m, that the station had to pay to Fr Reynolds when he sued. RTÉ compensated Fr Reynolds after it wrongly accused him of raping a minor and fathering a child while working in Kenya. But it held its ground in respect of Archbishop Burke.

RTÉ denied the broadcast meant Mr Burke was a paedophile and contended it meant Mr Burke had sexually molested Dolores Atwood in a hospital when she was a 13-year-old girl and had sex with her when she was 14.

There was no dispute as to whether Mr Burke and Ms Atwood had sexual relations. But the case turned on whether they first had sex when Ms Atwood was 14 as she - and RTÉ - claimed or when she was 20 or 21, as Mr Burke (40 years of age in 1989 when he says the affair began) insisted she was.

Mr Burke (66) spent three-and-a-half days in the witness box outlining delicate matters including his sexual history, a history that included relationships with other people - including an "encounter" with a married mother of eight - as well as improperly touching Ms Atwood's sister.

The phrase "phone sex" wasn't actually used, but Mr Burke admitted to indulging in sexual fantasy with Ms Atwood on the phone and writing letters in a similar vein long after he had left Africa to return to Ireland in 1990.

Mr Burke, who sued for compensatory, aggravated and punitive damages against RTÉ, denied that he had come to court "looking for money". But money certainly featured largely in the relationship between Mr Burke and Ms Atwood, even if the payments received by Ms Atwood from Mr Burke were not featured in 'Mission to Prey'.

Mr Burke maintained that Ms Atwood sought €200,000 from him in 2009, after he paid €176,000 in four separate tranches to Ms Atwood, whom - the court heard - regretted accepting in particular one €100,000 tranche.

The jury never got to hear Ms Atwood's full evidence as the trial broke off dramatically for legal argument less than half-an-hour into her testimony.

On Wednesday, in the absence of the jury, there was legal argument over complaints from Mr Burke's lawyers that Ms Atwood had been giving evidence about matters which had never been put to Mr Burke when he was under cross-examination.

This included the alleged hospital incident in 1983 and Ms Atwood allegedly being "hugged" after Mass by Mr Burke.

RTÉ's senior counsel Paul O'Higgins said he had forgotten to put certain matters in cross-examination but argued Mr Burke's evidence that he did not know Ms Atwood when she was 13 or 14 addressed the objection. The lawyer also suggested Mr Burke could be recalled to the witness box but he (Mr Burke) did not wish to do so.

When the case settled yesterday, RTÉ accepted that it was wrong to say Mr Burke had declined to be interviewed and apologised for this. The station acknowledged that Mr Burke consistently and vehemently denied the allegations, but it was clearly not accepting his version of events.

Outside court, RTÉ's deputy director general, Kevin Bakhurst, went out of his way to say Ms Atwood was a "totally truthful and honourable person", in effect standing by the truth of its claims in the documentary.

Mr Burke received no admission of liability, no damages and no jury verdict which may have vindicated (or rejected) his claim. He was consoled by a contribution from RTÉ towards his legal costs, which must be considerable.

Speaking outside court, Richard Burke's solicitor Robert Dore (who also represented Fr Reynolds in his action against RTÉ) said his client was a "man of truth". In contrast, and again speaking outside court, Dolores Atwood said she was "really glad the truth finally came out".

RTÉ emerges the marginal winner in a messy legal row.

But the truth is there are no winners.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News