‘Priest assaulted me when I was 13’

A 45-year-old woman has told the High Court a priest kissed her and touched her breast when she was a teenager in 1983.

‘Priest assaulted me when I was 13’

Dolores Atwood said she first met Richard Burke, a member of the Kiltegan Fathers order, after Mass at a Catholic church in Nigeria in 1982 and enjoyed conversations with him.

When she became ill with typhoid fever in 1983, at the age of 13, she was “surprised” when he visited her in hospital. While he was there, the light went off and he kissed her, touched her breast, and was “touching me inappropriately”.

When the light came back on, he had gone back to the position where he was standing before the light went off, she said.

Ms Atwood has begun her evidence in the action by Mr Burke, 66, a native of Co Tipperary, alleging he was defamed in the RTÉ Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey programme broadcast on May 23, 2011. He claims the programme wrongly meant he was a paedophile. RTÉ denies defamation.

The jury has heard Mr Burke was ordained in 1975, after which he served in Nigeria as a priest before being appointed Bishop of the diocese of Warri. He was later appointed Archbishop of Benin city but resigned in May 2010 over failure to adhere to his vow of celibacy. He remains a member of the Kiltegan Fathers.

Mr Burke denies claims by Ms Atwood, 45, who now lives in Canada with her husband Chris, that he sexually molested her when she was aged 13 and first had sex with her when she was 14. He says they first had sex in autumn 1989, when she was aged 20 and he was 40.

Beginning her evidence, Ms Atwood said

she was “always really attracted to the crucifix”, “I just love it”, and that led to her going to a Catholic church in 1982. She bought a rosary and, after a friend told her the rosary “would not work” unless a priest blessed it, she approached a priest after Mass and asked him to bless it.

That priest was Richard Burke. He told her he had not seen her face before and asked her to come to Mass next Sunday, she said. She did so, and he encouraged her to attend Mass, which she did when she could.

Whenever she went, Fr Burke gave her a hug, which she found “very relieving” and they would discuss the Church and her family.

In 1983, two days after she was taken to hospital with typhoid fever, a female member of the St Vincent de Paul society said she was going to Mass and “would let Father know you are here”, said Ms Atwood.

That evening, Fr Burke came to see her in hospital, the light went off, “and he kissed me and touched my breast and was putting his hand on me inappropriately”, Ms Atwood told the court. At that time, she did not know what was happening to her, she said.

When she saw Fr Burke later in September 1983 after Mass, he asked her to come again the following week. When she did so, they talked after Mass and he hugged and kissed her, she said.

At that point, the jury were asked to go out and legal discussion continued in their absence. Later, they were told by Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley to return to court on Thursday.

In re-examination earlier by his counsel Jack Fitzgerald SC, Mr Burke was asked about a hand-written note, which Mr Burke has agreed he drafted for Ms Atwood, stating “I completely withdraw my letter of...” and “would be grateful to have it returned to me”.

Mr Burke said the letter he wanted returned was one sent by Ms Atwood to the congregation in Rome accusing him of sexually abusing her when she was 13 or 14.

Mr Burke also read his May 2010 letter of resignation as Archbishop of Benin city in which he apologised for the hurt he had caused Ms Atwood and her family. The letter said their relationship began in 1989.

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