A former Catholic archbishop has told a High Court jury he was portrayed during an RTÉ television programme as leading a young girl up a stairs to his bedroom where he had sexually abused, sexually assaulted, and raped her.
“I could not believe my eyes,” Richard Burke said. “This did not happen, I did not do that, what is portrayed there is a lie.”
When his counsel, Jack Fitzgerald, asked: “Are you a paedophile,” he replied: “No.”
Mr Burke, aged 66, from Tipperary, said he was living in London with a member of his order, the Kiltegan Fathers, when Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey was screened on May 23, 2011.
He could not access RTÉ One but his niece sent him texts which, as the programme went on, progressed from “this is bad” to “this is really bad” to, in essence, “this is as bad as it can be”.
On getting those texts, “my heart began to sink and sink and sink into darkness, utter fear”, he told the court. He was concerned at what the programme was saying about him, how he was being portrayed, and feeling for his family, including his sister and brother, and the pain they must be enduring.
He was unable to watch the full episode until about a month later when he saw it at his sister’s home. His impression was he was being accused of being a paedophile, especially in a part of the programme involving a dramatisation where a girl was led up a stairs.
He felt “angry beyond belief” but also “totally powerless” and wondered how he would be able “to get a counter-voice out” after the broadcast. “I felt this is wrong, this did not happen.”
A reference by the reporter, that Mr Burke had declined to be interviewed, “gave me a hook to hang on to” as he got no invitation to respond to the claims being made, he said. That was “tiny in comparison to the feeling of helplessness”.
Mr Burke was giving evidence in his action against RTÉ. He alleges he was defamed in the Mission to Prey programme, which included an interview with a Nigerian woman, Dolores Atwood. He claims that interview, and other material in the report, wrongly depicted him as a paedophile and rapist.
The programme, he claims, wrongly meant that he groomed Ms Atwood and that he was a sexual predator who abused his position of trust and power to take advantage of a vulnerable girl whose parents were divorced and who regarded the Church as a sanctuary.
Mr Burke claims he had sexual relations with Ms Atwood, now aged 45, as an adult but not when she was underage. Having spent decades in Nigeria after his ordination in 1975, he tendered his resignation as archbishop of the archdiocese of Benin City in April 2010 over his failure to adhere to his vow of celibacy.
RTÉ denies defamation and pleads a defence of truth concerning the contents of the programme related to Mr Burke. It denies that the content bears some of the meanings alleged by Mr Burke, including it meant he was a rapist.
The jury heard RTÉ has said reporter Aoife Kavanagh tried to contact Mr Burke various times between March 14, 2011, and May 4, 2011, but could not reach him. RTÉ said she placed calls to Kiltegan residences in Ireland, London, and US and was told he could not be located.
The case continues.
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