The Association of Catholic Priests has accused Irish state broadcaster RTE and sections of the media of a bias against the Church and the clergy.
The ACP made the claims in a statement issued in reaction to RTE’s recent libellous claims that a missionary priest raped a teenage girl in Africa and left her pregnant.
Fr Kevin Reynolds, now based in Galway, won over $1.5million in libel damages after the claims were broadcast on the Prime Time Investigates TV show.
He was forced to undergo a paternity test and take RTE to court before the station backed down on the claims relating to his time as a missionary in Kenya.
ACP spokesperson Fr Seán McDonagh criticised RTE’s "failure to operate normal editorial controls" in the making of the programme.
The ACP statement also referred to a recent survey which indicated that over half of all Irish adults believe one in five priests is guilty of child abuse.
The statement from the ACP said: “Some months ago, in the aftermath of the Prime Time programme ‘Mission to Prey’ one of our members, Kevin Reynolds, who was featured in that programme, came to us stating that he had been grievously libelled by the programme, that he was out of ministry and that his good name had been destroyed.
“He was looking for someone who would support his efforts to make right the injustice committed against him, and since no Church authority seemed willing to do so, he asked if we could help him.
“Some time previously a legal team had offered their services to us; but since we are a new association with very little money, they kindly agreed to work for us pro bono. So we were able to take on the defence of our colleague.
“The rest of the story relating to the case of Kevin Reynolds is now in the public domain. But we as the Association of Catholic Priests would like to make clear some of the issues that we feel are raised by this case.”
The statement then made the following points:
“We think it is now clear, both from the way the Prime Time programme was produced and presented, and also from the results of the survey commissioned by the Iona Institute regarding attitudes of people towards priests, that there is a serious anti-Catholic and anti-priest bias among sections of the media, including some in the national broadcaster, and that this had led to a one-sided and unfair presentation of issues to do with Church and clergy in recent years.
“We were disappointed by the way the statement of correction and apology was presented by RTE on television and radio after the completion of the case. Reading it quickly and with poor quality delivery seemed almost to imply a lack of sincerity about the content.
“For many years now both priests and religious have been reluctant to engage in the public debate on issues related to the Church, because they did not want to add to the suffering of those who were genuinely abused, but also because they believed they would not get a fair hearing.
“They realised that very often the critics of the Church were allowed free rein by the presenters of programmes, whereas Church people were aggressively questioned and harassed about everything they said.
“So they remained silent. It is clear now that this silence has not helped, and has contributed to the unbalanced view of Church personnel shown up in the recent survey. This policy needs to be revisited.”
The Association is also critical, in its statement, of the behaviour of the Catholic Church in relation to the allegations made against Fr Reynolds who was forced to stand down from parish work in Galway pending his libel case.
The statement added: “Church protocols dealing with the handling of allegations against priests are also seriously defective.
“If RTE can be criticised for not waiting a few weeks until such time as Kevin Reynolds had a chance to clear his name by taking the paternity test, as he had offered to do, surely the Church authorities should have been equally circumspect about any action that could be seen to imply guilt on his part.”
The Priests group also asked questions of RTE management in relation to the Prime Time Investigates programme.
“Why did it decide to broadcast the false allegation when its reporter had been told that the alleged abuser would undergo a paternity test to prove his innocence?” asks the statement.
“Why it chose to confront the priest in public view on church premises after Mass on a First Communion day? What legal advice was it given before it broadcast the false allegation?
“What means did it use to try to verify the allegation made by the person who made the complaint in Africa?”
In response, RTE has said that it is waiting on the findings of the Press Ombudsman Professor John Horgan before making any statement on the case or the behaviour of the journalist involved.
“Clearly, serious errors were made in this case,” said an RTE spokesman.
“RTÉ is conducting its own internal review in addition to Prof Horgan’s report.