Senior RTE chiefs step aside over Kevin Reynolds Prime Time Investigates libel row

TWO of the most senior figures in RTÉ’s current affairs team stepped aside yesterday as the broadcaster tried to calm public anger over its libelling of Father Kevin Reynolds.

Ed Mulhall, the managing director of its news and current affairs division, and Kevin O’Shea, its editor of current affairs, will be off-duty while the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland carries out an investigation into the controversy.

Aoife Kavanagh, the Prime Time Investigates reporter who falsely alleged that the priest had raped a teenage girl and fathered a child in Africa, will be taken ‘off air’, as will the programme’s executive producer Brian Páircéir.

The damage-limitation exercise came the day after RTÉ announced it was suspending Prime Times Investigates as Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte ordered an independent probe into how the priest was defamed.

The broadcaster said of yesterday’s staff moves: ‘These decisions have been agreed in order to remove any possible doubt about the objectivity and impartiality of RTÉ’s news and current affairs services at this time and are taken without prejudice to any party.’

RTE’s decision to air the allegations about the priest in the face of his denials is estimated to have cost the State-run broadcaster – and therefore the taxpayer – between €1million and €3million.

It came under particular criticism for refusing the priest’s offer to take a paternity test – something that would later prove his innocence.

The broadcaster was also roundly criticised last week for the hurried way an apology to Fr Reynolds was read out on air.

After the libel judgment went against the broadcaster this month, it promised an internal inquiry into ‘editorial procedure’.

However, Mr Rabbitte decided this was not enough and asked the BAI’s Compliance Committee to examine if RTÉ had ‘met its statutory responsibilities around objectivity, impartiality and fairness’. The investigation is expected to last two months.

In an edition Prime Time Investigates entitled A Mission To Prey, Miss Kavanagh approached the priest after he had conducted a first Holy Communion Mass, and wrongly accused him of sexually abusing a teenage girl in Kenya in 1982.

She also wrongly accused him of fathering a child with the woman. The reporters’ allegations against the 65-year-old parish priest of Ahascragh, Co. Galway, were broadcast to an audience of 519,000 on May 23.

They were repeated the following morning on Morning Ireland, when 338,000 listeners tuned in.

RTÉ director general Noel Curran has said the libelling of Fr Reynolds was one of the gravest editorial mistakes ever made in RTÉ and serious errors were made.

On the way into the launch of a book on the history of RTÉ by John Bowman last night, Enda Kenny said: ‘I welcome the fact that RTÉ have announced publicly that they are going to co-operate and cooperate fully with the inquiry into the Fr Reynolds libel.

‘Obviously the fact that RTÉ have made a decision themselves that certain personnel will stand down for the duration of that investigation is obviously a decision that RTÉ have taken in the light of what’s happened here.’

Earlier, the Taoiseach had told the Dáil: ‘I respect completely the independence of the Press Ombudsman, Mr [John] Horgan.

He is carrying out an investigation and I have no question over his independence in his role.

‘Following the initiative taken [by Pat Rabbitte], I thought it important that the Government act in the best interests of the highest standards in journalism and the rights of every person in this matter.’

On Morning Ireland Mr Rabbitte said: ‘The issues involved are very grave. I don’t recall a lapse of this magnitude before in the history of RTÉ… But my impression is the management of RTÉ understands the gravity of it and it’s that public disquiet that has to be allayed.

‘It has traditionally adhered to very high standards and it is in the interest of the broadcaster as well as in the public interest that the questions that remain around the Kevin Reynolds case be cleared up.’

RTÉ said Prime Time Investigates has been suspended for December and that Mr Páircéir and Miss Kavanagh ‘will not be involved in any on-air programming for this period and as with all other relevant members of staff, they will be engaged in assist-ing the RTÉ and BAI inquiries’.

At the High Court this month, Jack FitzGerald SC, counsel for Fr Reynolds, said: ‘Following the broadcast, Fr Reynolds was a priest removed from public ministry, out of home and labelled a criminal, a paedophile and a rapist.

‘Fr Reynolds suffered irreparable damage to his reputation. His life was utterly altered and he was removed from his home and his community. He was cast under a cloud of suspicion.’

The priest denied all allegations and, four days after Miss Kavanagh confronted him, his solicitors wrote to RTÉ to repeat the denials and asked the broadcaster not to screen the accusations.

However, RTÉ ignored the letter. On May 18, Miss Kavanagh emailed Fr Reynolds to say the broadcast would go ahead and claimed to have evidence to back up her claims.

The priest’s solicitors wrote back with further denials and his bishop in Africa emailed Miss Kavanagh to tell her the allegations were untrue.

Mr FitzGerald said RTÉ broadcast the allegations ‘in the teeth of firm denials’.

Fr Reynolds stood down but on September 12 he was restored to public ministry after a paternity test showed that he was not the child’s father.