Misjudgments by individuals combined with systemic failures led to RTÉ’s grave error to wrongly accuse a priest of fathering the child of a teenage girl he was accused of raping.
A damning report on the background to the controversial Prime Time Investigates documentary Mission to Prey broadcast on May 23, found that note-taking at all stages of the production were “either non-existent or grossly inadequate”.
It concluded the programme makers also developed a “group-think” mentality which wrongly convinced them that the “facts” verified their assumption of the guilt of Fr Kevin Reynolds.
It led them to dismiss denials, the offer of a paternity test and a threat of legal action made by the priest’s solicitor on May 19, 2011 — a letter seen by RTÉ lawyers.
An inquiry by former BBC Northern Ireland controller Anna Carragher, who was appointed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, found the standards of reporter Aoife Kavanagh and producer Mark Lappin fell short of what should have been expected.
Ms Carragher expected that Ms Kavanagh would have been “a great deal more rigorous” in checking her source’s credibility given the seriousness of the allegation. She also expressed surprise that RTÉ lawyers were only involved two weeks before the broadcast date.
She claimed it was highly undesirable that Ms Kavanagh was the sole point of contact between the priest’s solicitors and RTÉ. The reporter’s conduct in putting questions to Fr Reynolds which assumed his guilt was also criticised.
The report concluded that the “group-think” view led the team to regard Fr Reynolds’s offer to take a paternity test to refute the allegation as not genuine and a tactic to derail the programme. Some members convinced themselves of the likeness between the priest and his alleged daughter, Sheila Mudi.
Ms Carragher observed there was no mechanism at the time within RTÉ to refer the decision to broadcast highly sensitive or controversial programmes to the station’s director-general, Noel Curran. No notes were kept of key editorial meetings involving the production team and RTÉ’s head of news, Ed Mulhall, editor of current affairs, Ken O’Shea, and executive producer, Brian Páircéir.
The report expressed concern that the credibility of key sources regarding the allegations against Fr Reynolds were not sufficiently questioned, while weight was given to the repetition of allegations by second-hand sources who were not directly contacted by members of the RTÉ team.
Ms Carragher said it was a worry that only one page of production notes was made about any aspect of the programme, between Oct 2010 when it was first considered and Feb 2011, even though Ms Kavanagh visited Kenya on research in Jan 2011.
Details about the allegation of the rape uncovered during this visit by Ms Kavanagh were confused, the report concluded.
Ms Carragher said the reporter seemed to treat the second-hand repetition of gossip as corroboration and failed to follow up claims that the priest had paid the schools fees of his alleged daughter.
The report accepted that the Prime Time Investigates team believed their actions in secretly filming on two occasions and door-stepping Fr Reynolds were compliant with RTÉ guidelines.
However, Ms Carragher found the relevant guidelines were “ambiguous”.
While she found the team acted in good faith in doorstepping Fr Reynolds, Ms Carragher said they did not afford him the chance to agree to an interview.
She concluded there was an assumption that the team were familiar with RTÉ’s producer guidelines (a 95-page document), even though the broadcaster had no way of verifying that.
Anna Carragher worked as controller of BBC Northern Ireland from 2000-2006 and was appointed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to investigate the wrongful claims by RTÉ about Fr Kevin Reynolds.
During her time with the BBC she produced and edited many news and current affairs for both radio and television.
She also serves on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates artificial reproduction in Britain.
A doyen of news within RTÉ, colleagues bemoaned Ed Mulhall’s loss to the newsroom when it was announced early last month he would be retiring as a result of the fall-out from the Mission to Prey scandal.
Mulhall joined RTÉ as a radio producer in 1979, having graduated with honours in economics and politics from TCD.
He worked his way up through the organisation before being made managing director of news and current affairs 14 years ago.
As recently as 2010, he was seen as contender to take over from Cathal Goan as the next director-general. Due primarily to a decision made on May 20 last year, that and any other remaining ambitions within RTÉ are likely to have disappeared for good.
On that date Mulhall, from Athy in Co Kildare, signed off on the Mission to Prey programme. He had been made aware of the show’s content and the issues surrounding it during its production.
The report notes regarding the meeting: “Mr Mulhall is very clear that, as director of news, the final say on whether or not to transmit the Fr Reynolds section of the programme was his call and he fully accepts the responsibility of doing so.”
A letter of May 18 from Fr Reynolds’s solicitors, denying all allegations and threatening defamation proceedings, was viewed by Mulhall and Brian Pairceir, executive producer, as “a continuing reiteration of denials”, and dismissed as such. There does not appear to have been a reply — something the report called “discourteous”.
Mulhall did not see an email sent to Aoife Kavanagh on the day of the broadcast. He now accepts that he and other senior personnel should have ensured the letter was seen by RTÉ’s legal affairs division and a meeting held to address its content — particularly as it was offering, directly from Fr Reynolds, a paternity test.
Ken O’Shea, Brian Pairceir
Corkman Ken O’Shea, had held the position of position of editor of current affairs in RTÉ One television since Oct 2008, was moved sideways in the station prior to the BAI report being made public.
His role, alongside that of award-winning executive producer Brian Pairceir, in the disastrous Mission to Prey programme, was highlighted in what the report said was a “group-think” mentality. They allowed it to air when aspects of the claims against Fr Kevin Reynolds could have been more rigorously analysed, the report found.
Mr O’Shea joined RTÉ in 1997, having worked for a number of national newspapers.
In his new role, he now reports to the commissioning editor of RTÉ Two.
The reason for that shift, and the move to take Mr Pairceir off-air due to the BAI investigation, is outlined in the report.
As with others involved in the programme, the lack of note-taking was criticised. The roles of Mr O’Shea and Mr Pairceir were highlighted in aspects of the programme itself, such as the extent to which staff involved understood existing guidelines.
The report says there was “no evidence” the production team referred to RTÉ One’s editorial guidelines, and no training was provided to Aoife Kavanagh, who was on her first Prime Time Investigates programme.
Regarding the secret filming of Fr Reynolds for use in the broadcast, the report outlines how it is mandatory to obtain the permission of the director general before filming. Mr O’Shea and Mr Pairceir told the investigator they did not regard the two occasions of filming Fr Reynolds as surreptitious.
The report also criticises the producer and editor for their failure to interrogate the claims made against Fr Reynolds, particularly that the school fees of the girl he had allegedly fathered in Kenya had been paid by a local bishop. Likewise, the lack of a paper trail or receipts, or the claim of the teacher who allegedly backed up the accusation over payment of the fees.
Unanimity in the belief that Fr Reynolds’s offer of a paternity test was not genuine was married to “highly subjective assumptions”.
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