Fr Kevin Reynolds’ offer to take a paternity test was not communicated to the RTÉ legal team prior to the broadcast that falsely claimed he had fathered a child while working as a missionary in Kenya.
An investigation by the Broadcast Authority of Ireland said there “may have been a different outcome” if the legal team were made aware of the offer.
The report said it was surprised that, for such a “high risk” programme, the in-house legal affairs department became involved “very late in the process” just two weeks before it was broadcast.
An initial offer of a paternity test was made to journalist Aoife Kavanagh on May 18 by the Mill House Fathers. This letter was seen by the legal department.
The team’s reaction is not known because the advice it provides is subject to client confidentiality — even thought it is in-house.
But the report said: “It can be expected that the legal affairs team outlined the risks of proceeding in the light of the offer of a paternity test and a number of changes were made to the section.”
On the day the programme was broadcast, May 23, Fr Reynolds himself offered through his solicitor to make himself available for a paternity test, in an email sent to Ms Kavanagh.
“There appears to be some confusion about this letter,” according to the report, with some of the editorial team believing it was passed onto the legal affairs team, while others said it was not.
“However, legal affairs confirm that they were unaware of this letter,” it said.
The letter was discussed between Ms Kavanagh, the Prime Time executive producer Brian Pairceir, current affairs editor Ken O’Shea and producer Mark Lappin.
“The view of the team remained as before — that the further offer of a paternity test did not make a material change and this view was reinforced by the team’s existing belief that the offer was not genuine.”
Director of news Ed Mulhall became aware of the letter through a conversation with Mr O’Shea but did not see it before transmission of the programme because he was monitoring the coverage of Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland.
In retrospect, he agreed that he and other senior editorial figures should have ensured the letter went to the legal department and a formal meeting should have been held to discuss its contents, in particular the further offer of a paternity test.
“This was, in his view, significantly different from the statement from the Mill House Fathers as it came directly from Fr Reynolds,” said the report.
It said it was a “source of regret” that RTÉ did not choose to waive its claim to privilege in the solicitor/client relationship between itself and its in-house staff.
Members of the public who pay the television licence fee have “suffered financial detriment” because of the costs incurred by RTÉ following the debacle.
RTÉ is funded by a mix of public funds raised through the licence fee and commercial funds raised through advertising.
In the wake of the programme, it was subject to court proceedings and paid a substantial sum in damages — believed to be in excess of €1m — to Fr Reynolds, whom the broadcaster accepted it gravely wronged.
On top of those costs, the Broadcasting Authority fined RTÉ €200,000 as a result of the programme breaching the Broadcasting Act.
The budget for the programme itself had been €137,000, which the report said was “at the upper end of the Prime Time Investigates average cost; however, for an edition which involved extensive foreign filming and several reconstructions this is not an excessive sum”.
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