A PROBLEM FOR RTE
It has not been a good few weeks for RTE, the state-owned national television station. The station is financed by revenue from the (compulsory ) television license, currently costing around $200 annually, as well as from advertising. It is, therefore, subject to the type of public scrutiny and criticism that a purely commercial station would not. Though not without its critics, RTE TV and Radio, has, with limited resources, consistently provided programming of a high standard, even measured against the yardstick set by the next – door BBC. In the area of news and current affairs RTE has a proud record of investigative journalism, including exposing incidences of institutionalised neglect and abuse of children in their care by some of Ireland’s religious orders as well as the separate abuse of children in the Dublin archdiocese.
This record has now suffered a serious blemish with a large (reputedly seven figure) award against it over a false allegation made in its current affairs flagship programme that an Irish missionary priest, Fr. Kevin Reynolds, had raped a minor and fathered a girl by her in Kenya. The way the whole programme was conducted and screened, on the face of it beggars belief, and several investigations, both internal and external, are under way into the whole circumstances surrounding the programme and its aftermath.
The incident has been a field day for RTE’s critics and comes just after the annual publication by RTE of the salaries paid to its top employees. This event has traditionally met with widespread public criticism but the howls have been louder than ever this year given the economic climate and the latest imminent tax increases and welfare cuts. RTE did not help itself in this regard by persisting in its curious practice of publishing top salary details two years in arrears, i.e. the latest details published are for 2009.This may have had the effect formerly of camouflaging rising salaries to deflect criticism but this is now working in reverse.
The revelation that RTE’s top four highest paid each received over €500,000 ($650,000 plus) in 2009, even though these amounts were less than in 2008, did not sit well with the public which pays them. Nor have the somewhat feeble attempts by some of the individuals themselves to justify the amounts. RTE has pointed out that most of the highest paid are on contract rather than employed as salaried staff and that their contracts are set to be negotiated down substantially as they come up for renewal. We shall see on that one; there is a school of thought that questions why a publicly funded body employing many talented people should have to hire anyone on contract, let alone pay them the amounts involved.
But pay is a minor matter compared to the defining issue for RTE in 2011 – the Reynolds Affair. The saga became public with the Primetime Investigates programme “Mission to Prey”, broadcast in May which looked at allegations of sexual abuse by Irish religious working in Africa. The last few years have been open season for attacks on the Catholic Church in Ireland. The growing secularisation of Irish society, the decline in religious observance and an influx of immigrants from different cultures denting what had been a fairly monolithic society provided the context; the shameful revelations of the many instances of betrayal of trust by the Church the content.
The sad litany of sexual abuse by priests, of institutional physical and emotional ill-treatment and neglect of children entrusted to the care of various religious orders and the existence of unsavoury institutions such as the Magdalene laundries, have received wide media coverage in recent years. An Irish government fell in1994 over a paedophile priest. The role of the Catholic authorities, in both Ireland and Rome, in dissembling or indeed covering up for guilty priests , did not help, was the cause of an outburst from the Taoiseach against Rome several months ago and is surely at the root of the recently announced decision to close Ireland’s embassy to the Vatican.
It was inevitable that, sooner or later, attention would turn to the remaining jewel in the crown of Irish Catholicism – the Missionary Church. During the 20th Century and up to the present, thousands of Irish priests, brothers, nuns and lay people worked as Missionaries worldwide. Their influence on the ground was considerable, particularly in education. Interestingly, the first great generation of Kenyan Olympic athletes were educated by Irish Christian Brothers. And, as a consequence of their experiences of abject poverty on the ground in Africa, Irish religious have founded development aid organisations (example: Concern) and been prominent in fundraising and lobbying for increased official Irish development assistance.
The RTE programme fastened on the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” climate of prevalent Irish anti-clericalism. It apparently relied on a specific anonymous allegation naming a former missionary, Fr. Kevin Reynolds, retired, my age, and currently parish priest of Ahascragh, Co. Galway, as the father of a Kenyan girl, whose mother had been a minor when allegedly known to Fr. Reynolds. In a classic of tabloid “journalism”, Fr. Reynolds was confronted on camera with the allegation just after conducting a First Communion ceremony in his parish.
He was at first bemused, then amused and then shocked as he vigorously denied the accusation. When it dawned on him that the allegation would be broadcast he protested his innocence and offered a blood test. Despite this and despite a number of exchanges between Fr. Reynolds and RTE, the programme went ahead, even including in it reference to his offer of the paternity test.
Fr. Reynolds was stood down from his ministry. He was devastated. Imagine, if you will, as I have, the effects on him of these false charges. He sought legal support, offered on a pro bono basis. The paternity test, conducted on behalf of RTE, duly took place and proved he could not have fathered the child. The alleged victim withdrew the allegation. RTE delayed releasing the blood test results to him, though at this stage, apparently, the RTE Director General offered to resign.
Fr. Reynolds eventually had his day in court. He won, hands down, handsomely, and with a confidential massive settlement in his favour. Here we enter the theatre of the bizarre. An RTE spokesman, asked whether heads would roll, retorted that severed heads learned nothing. An official on-the-air apology, ordered by the Court, was gabbled on air in a near indecipherable monotone. The Director General was not available for comment. It appeared that an attempt was being made to brazen the affair out.
The public was gobsmacked. Then the reaction set in. There were questions in the Dail and on air. Enquiries were ordered, by RTE, by the Broadcasting Authority. These are on-going. Those involved in the programme have stepped aside. Fr. Reynolds has been restored to his ministry. The RTE Director General eventually went on air. The apology was repeated – this time with feeling! Yet the long term effects on him are unquantifiable and hardly something money alone can redress. There are hard questions to be answered before a justice hard earned is seen to be done.