The Mission to Prey programme was Aoife Kavanagh’s first for PrimeTime Investigates. For her and others on the strand, it would be the last.
The BAI report will make painful reading for the presenter, who after a successful career at RTÉ found herself in the midst of the station’s biggest-ever controversy.
Ms Kavanagh, from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, worked in print as a news and sports journalist before joining RTÉ in 1996. She was one of the main presenters of flagship radio programme Morning Ireland but the disastrous Mission to Prey last May led to her being taken off air for the duration of the BAI reporting period.
A relatively recent transfer to PrimeTime, having previously reported from Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone, Ms Kavanagh initially raised the possibility of a programme on missionaries in Africa with producer Brian Páircéir in Oct 2010.
It was to prove a fateful decision, as the BAI report outlines how it moved from idea to air and ultimately to an overhaul of RTÉ’s news and current affairs division, as well as a massive libel pay-out to the subject of Mission to Prey, Fr Kevin Reynolds.
The report highlights a number of errors it attributes to Ms Kavanagh. Investigator Anna Carragher states: “The standards of the production team on the ground — Aoife Kavanagh and Mark Lappin — fell short of what should be expected, with interviews with significant sources not documented and an almost complete absence of documentary evidence.”
In finding that note-taking was “either non-existent or grossly inadequate” others involved with the programme are also held to account. The same charge is also levelled regarding the lack of written documentation about the genesis of the programme — nothing until a single handwritten sheet in February last year, even though the idea was first under discussion in Oct2010 and Ms Kavanagh had carried out a research trip in Jan 2011.
The report outlines how, on that research trip, she met with someone who told her about an allegation that Fr Reynolds had in the early 1980s been a priest in the village of Eregi and had non-consensual sexual relations with a girl called Veneranda who had then had a daughter, Sheila.
The report states that “details about the alleged event appeared confused” with a lack of clarity over Veneranda’s age and the extent to which her husband and Sheila’s husband knew anything about the claim.
On her return to Dublin, Ms Kavanagh emailed her source and was reassured about the allegation, writing back that “we may have to take a leap of faith on this and simply approach him”. Ms Carragher said she would have expected the reporter to have been more rigorous in her exploration of her source’s credibility, especially given the seriousness of the allegation.
The report also raises concerns over the tone of the emails between reporter and source, that it “brooks no other view than that of Fr Reynolds’ culpability” and “makes sweeping assumptions”. In an email dated Mar 2 last year, Ms Kavanagh wrote: “It drives me crazy to think of him preaching, literally, in Galway while all of this mess is tucked away in Kenya.”
According to the report, Ms Kavanagh did not appear to have met or questioned the colleagues who according to her source were all aware of the allegation. It appears repetition of gossip was treated as corroboration. A second allegation, that Fr Reynolds paid school fees for Sheila, appears to have come from a second source.
A local freelance reporter was detailed to check out this allegation, but he made no record of his conversations with those making the claims. He did send an email to Ms Kavanagh summarising a conversation with Sheila’s teacher, in which she said the fees had been paid by the local bishop.
In February, Ms Kavanagh phoned the teacher. In the course of “difficult” and brief calls, the teacher appeared to back up the earlier claim, but Ms Carragher states she was unable to find any evidence that the Kenyan journalist or the production team made any real effort to track down the documentary evidence of this claim about school fees. There seemed to be no attempt to find receipts, although Ms Kavanagh said the teacher had told her that none existed.
Footage shot of Fr Reynolds — 30 years after the alleged rape — was shown to Veneranda, who then claimed that he was the man who had fathered her child. The interview with Veneranda was then filmed, an interview that “assumed the truth of the allegation”.
According to the report, the interview did not probe the woman’s story, or the discrepancies about dates or the question of the school fees allegedly paid or why her husband seemed unaware of the allegation.
It goes on that Ms Carragher asked Ms Kavanagh about these points and the reporter said she had raised these issues with Veneranda before filming, and had made notes but could not now find them. “I had notes and do you think I can find them? No I can’t.”
A doorstep interview, in which Fr Reynolds was questioned and filmed outside a First Communion service at a church in Ahascragh, is criticised.
“[Ms Kavanagh’s] conduct of the interview also raises some questions about compliance with the guidelines in so far as she made statements which assumed guilt — for example, her opening remark after giving her name and saying she was from PrimeTime was: ‘Thirty years ago, father... you had a daughter who was born in Kenya.’”
As briefing notes of the BAI report were leaked it is understood Ms Kavanagh was seeking to contest its portrayal of her role in the programme. She reaffirmed this yesterday, also resigning from RTÉ.
I have resigned my position as reporter/presenter with RTÉ.
I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Fr Kevin Reynolds for the hurt caused to him by the Prime Time Investigates programme. I would also like to apologise to those who work with victims of sexual abuse if this controversy has in any way made their work more difficult.
While acknowledging that mistakes were made, I believe that I acted objectively and in good faith throughout the making of the programme. In this regard I do not accept many of the findings of the investigating officer in relation to the manner in which I carried out my work.
Finally, I would like to sincerely thank all of those who have offered me their support over the past number of months.
* Jan 2011: RTÉ Prime Time Investigates reporter Aoife Kavanagh learns of allegations against Fr Kevin Reynolds during a research trip to Africa.
* May 7, 2011: Fr Reynolds is door-stepped by Ms Kavanagh and a camera crew after a Holy Communion service at his church at Ahascragh, Co Galway.
He subsequently offers to take a paternity test to refute allegations he fathered a child by an underage girl whom he raped while working as a missionary in Kenya in the 1980s.
* May 23, 2011: RTÉ broadcasts Mission to Prey, in which it falsely accuses the priest of raping a minor.
* July 5, 2011: Fr Reynolds confirms he has initiated High Court proceedings against RTÉ.
* Sept 22, 2011: The High Court hears two paternity tests confirmed Fr Reynolds is not the father of the child.
* Oct 6, 2011: Prime Time broadcasts an apology to Fr Reynolds and claims the allegations made against him were baseless. Presentation of the apology is subsequently criticised.
* Oct 9, 2011: Fr Reynolds receives astanding ovation from Mass-goers on his reinstatement as priest in his home parish.
* Nov 15, 2011: Press Ombudsman John Horgan is appointed to carry out an independent review of RTÉ’s editorial process.
* Nov 17, 2011: RTÉ settles libel action taken by Fr Reynolds for an undisclosed sum. RTÉ’s head of communications Kevin Dawson signals nobody will be dismissed.
* Nov 22, 2011: The Government orders the BAI to conduct an independent inquiry into the making of the programme. RTÉ axes Prime Time Investigates.
* Nov 23, 2011: RTÉ’s director of news, Ed Mulhall, and editor of current affairs, Ken O’Shea, step aside. Ms Kavanagh and executive producer, Brian Paircéir, are removed from on-air programming.
* Nov 25, 2011: RTÉ reissues its apology to Fr Reynolds.
* Dec 8, 2011: Former senior BBC executive Anna Carragher is appointed to head up the BAI inquiry into Mission to Prey.
* Apr 2, 2011: RTÉ announces Mr Mulhall has retired. Mr O’Shea has resigned from his role and is reassigned.
* Apr 3, 2011: Fr Reynolds’ solicitor criticises the fact neither he nor the priest are asked to participate in the BAI inquiry.
* Apr 5, 2011: BAI submits its report to RTÉ. The station has 14 days to make submissions.
* May 4, 2011: The BAI report is published.
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