Friday 24 November 2017

Tawdry tale of bishop and vulnerable young woman

Dolores Atwood, RTÉ’s star witness in Mr Burke’s defamation case against the broadcaster
Dolores Atwood, RTÉ’s star witness in Mr Burke’s defamation case against the broadcaster
Richard Burke, former Archbishop Emeritus of Benin, Nigeria
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

As she stepped outside court into the sunshine, Nigerian national Dolores Atwood smiled for the cameras and said she was "very, very happy".

A short time earlier, RTÉ's star witness in a defamation action taken against it by a former Catholic Archbishop appeared unhappy as details of a settlement reached between RTÉ and Richard Burke - Archbishop Emeritus of Benin, Nigeria - were read to a bemused, extraordinarily young jury.

Ms Atwood had, for three and a half days, sported a spectrum of emotions as Burke - who admitted having sexual relations with Atwood - gave evidence that the pair had met and embarked on a sexual relationship while he was climbing clerical ranks from his missionary outpost in Nigeria.

But whose version of events was to be believed?

Atwood says that Burke had engaged in underage sex with her: he says that he merely embarked on a relationship with a young adult half his age.

Richard Burke sued RTÉ, claiming its controversial 2011 'Prime Time: Mission to Prey' programme had wrongly branded him a paedophile.

RTÉ said that it hadn't and insisted that the TV broadcast merely stated that Burke - who resigned in 2010 as Archbishop of Benin over his failure to honour his vow of celibacy - had sexually molested Atwood in a hospital when she was 13 and had sex with her when she was 14.

Burke insisted that they first had sex when Atwood was 19 or 20 - when he was 40 years old.

By the Archbishop's own admission, it was tawdry stuff.

Even if Atwood was, as Burke contends, 20 years of age, here was a man - a cleric to boot - having sex with a vulnerable woman, a young Muslim who started attending Mass after her parents divorced because she fell in love with the crucifix.

Not that he saw it that way: the way Burke told his story, Atwood was a sexually experienced woman who instigated their sexual relations.

Giving evidence in the High Court, Burke said that they first had sex in 1989 - he says she was 20 - when Atwood came unexpectedly to his private apartment on a Sunday afternoon.

He said he felt "uneasy" about her "flirtatious" demeanour and left her in the room to go find a "chaperone" only to return to the room "in turmoil".

Despite his turmoil (he felt "flattered" because he felt he was "someone special in her eyes"), he had full sex with her after "responding to her overtures".

Archbishop Burke said nice things about Dolores Atwood in the witness box, but in a letter to RTÉ in 2011 from his solicitor - read out in the proceedings - Atwood was described as "a thoroughly unreliable person motivated by malice" towards him.

In court, Burke, who admitted embracing and improperly touching Atwood's sister, said that by the time Atwood had made overtures to him, she was already sexually experienced.

This opened up a window on to Burke's own sexual history which involved an encounter with a married mother of eight, amongst others.

Senior Counsel Paul O'Higgins, for RTÉ, put it to Burke that he had experiences with "quite a lot of other people".

Burke replied "some other people" but O'Higgins remarked that the number of people was "in the teens", adding that he was referring to the number - and not age - of Burke's lovers.

According to Burke, Atwood was obsessed with him, her anger triggered by his other encounters and a failure to leave the priesthood for her.

It was terror, he said, that led him to hand over €176,000 to Ms Atwood, denying that the transactions (four in all, he said) were in any way connected to attempts to get her to withdraw complaints about him from his religious order and the Vatican.

Burke was, according to his version of events, prepared to pay a high price to prevent revelations that would heap disgrace on him and his ministry.

He told the court that he recorded one phone call in October 2007 when Atwood allegedly told him to select one of four options: one included going anywhere in the world for five days and having full sex, another that he would give her €10,000 for five years.

Burke, who told Atwood's husband Chris Atwood in a phone call that a sexless night he spent with Dolores in Lagos was "the worst night of his life", had a much poorer recall of an agreement in his handwriting in which Atwood would receive €100,000 under a number of strict conditions.

Burke complained bitterly that he had never had the opportunity to be interviewed and RTÉ subsequently apologised that they were wrong to say that he had declined to be interviewed in 'Mission to Prey'.

But the broadcaster did cross-examine Burke about a list of questions it sent in advance of the programme to the Kiltegan order of which he is a member, directed towards him.

Burke saw both RTÉ's questions and his order's answers, but maintained that he had no idea that he would be featured in the broadcast.

For her part, Dolores Atwood was agitated and distressed during much of Burke's evidence and clearly wanted her say.

She broke down in the witness box as she recalled her parents' divorce. But she had barely begun to outline her version of events when the trial broke off into one of its many customary breaks for legal argument.

The 45-year-old was in the middle of explaining how a golden crucifix on a school friend's necklace led her to Richard Burke who, in turn, encouraged the young Muslim to go to Mass.

Burke's lawyers bristled when Atwood said the priest hugged her after Mass and protested strongly when she said he had sexually molested her when she was on a drip recovering from typhoid fever in hospital at the age of 13.

This material wasn't put to Mr Burke, his lawyers protested.

But RTÉ countered that Burke's evidence that he did not know Atwood when she was a teenager addressed the objection.

For whatever reasons, proceedings drew to a close at that juncture, with a settlement shortly after that neither vindicated nor rejected Burke or Atwood's versions.

Atwood appeared bereft, notwithstanding her assertion that she is happy the truth "is finally out there", that she did not have the opportunity to give her version of events.

Burke looked stunned: in his efforts to clear his name, his own reputation had taken a battering far beyond the simple statement issue on his resignation that he had broken his vow of celibacy.

Irish Independent

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