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A tale of two priests tried by circus

HONG KONG (SE): “Trial by media circus does not help victims of sexual abuse or educate society in relation to the abhorrence of the crime, and while scapegoating one group of people may lead a society to believe that it is addressing the issue, it is, in fact, not,” Father Sean McDonagh, from the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, told the Sunday Examiner.

On May 23 at 9.30pm this year, the Irish national broadcaster, RTE, aired a story on its television programme, Primetime, in which it accused Father Kevin Reynolds, a member of the Mill Hill Missionary Society, of fathering a child in 1982 with an underage Kenyan girl named Veneraanda.

Reporter, Aoife Kavanagh, had approached Father Reynolds on May 7 after Mass and accused him on camera of being the father of a young woman called Sheila.

Despite denials from the flustered priest and later written denials, a demand for an apology and a threatened libel suit from his solicitors at the time, Fair and Murtagh, in addition to an offer from Father Reynolds to undergo a DNA test, RTE went ahead and aired the programme under the title, Mission to Prey, on the basis that it possessed credible evidence from a third party and knew that Father Reynolds had sent money to Sheila to pay for education expenses.

RTE did not even give the courtesy of a reply to Father Reynolds’ solicitors and featured interviews with both Veneraanda and Sheila in its television slot.

The programme attracted an estimated 530,000 viewers and a follow up discussion on Radio One’s Primetime Investigates the following morning got 338,000 listeners.

Father Reynolds was asked to stand down as parish priest of Ahascragh, in the Galway diocese of Elphin. Father McDonagh describes him as suffering irreparable damage after being publicly labelled as a criminal, rapist and paedophile.

Solicitor, Robert Dore, of Dore and Company, agreed to take up the case on behalf of Father Reynolds, pro bono.

On June 23, Dore told RTE that Father Reynolds was to undergo a DNA test, which as it turned out, proved conclusively that he was not the father of Sheila.

However, RTE persisted in defending its right to have aired the programme on the grounds that it was in the interests of the public.

However, on October 6, the public broadcaster did apologise, although not in the words requested by Father Reynolds’ solicitor. A public enquiry has since been ordered into the matter and RTE has pulled the programme.

On October 9, Father Reynolds was reinstated in his parish, but Father McDonagh insists that the warm welcome he received does not compensate for the pain and suffering he has been through.

On November 15, Father Reynolds reached an out-of-court settlement with RTE, details of which have not been disclosed, but his solicitor also asked for a public statement from the minister for justice, Alan Shatter, retracting his support for Mission to Prey.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the archdiocese of Adelaide, Australia, another priest, Monsignor Ian Dempsey, is being tried for the homosexual rape of a fellow seminarian, Archbishop John Hepworth, of the Traditional Anglican Communion, but this time by parliamentary circus.

Independent senator, Nick Xenophon, made the accusation public under privilege to an almost empty chamber, but his remarks have generated more miles of news print and buckets of sound bytes than many comments made to a packed house.

On November 28, Archbishop Philip Wilson announced that a Church investigation conducted by queen’s counsel, Michael Abbott, found that the former Catholic priest’s accusations had no substance.

Abbott interviewed 29 witnesses, many of whom were present at the time the alleged rape is said to have taken place. “Archbishop Hepworth’s claims against Monsignor Dempsey, which were analysed and examined in detail, were comprehensively rejected by Mr. Abbott,” Archbishop Wilson told the media.

Both Xenophon and Archbishop Hepworth claim the investigation is meaningless, as the archbishop did not give evidence (he refused) and he did not nominate any witnesses (he refused).

However, on November 29, Archbishop Hepworth finally filed charges with the police, which he had been encouraged to do four years ago when he first talked with archdiocesan officials.

The public prosecutor’s office had previously told Monsignor Dempsey’s lawyer that it did not intend to prosecute him, as it possessed no evidence on which to build a case.

However, Archbishop Hepworth cites acceptance by an enquiry into another complaint against a dead priest with a criminal record he made to the archdiocese of Melbourne, which paid him AUD75,000 ($583,350) in compensation, as evidence of the facts of his claim.

While some media outlets have run Archbishop Hepworth’s story as he tells it, others have looked more closely into his background, saying there is evidence of instability. As one head line succinctly put it, “A grave injustice may have been done, but not to Hepworth.”

A police investigation may or may not settle the matter. Monsignor Dempsey’s worst fear is that the case will fizzle out and be left undetermined, which would leave his claim of innocence untested and up in the air.

The former chaplain in the Royal Australian Navy adds that Xenophon also implied in his speech to the senate that he may be a paedophile, something which is not implied in the accusation brought by Archbishop Hepworth.

Monsignor Dempsey too has taken undetermined leave, but unlike Father Reynolds was not asked to step down.

He just says, “It is very difficult to get up in front of a few hundred people celebrating the Eucharist and knowing in your heart that there are all these accusations against you. I’ve known from the beginning that it was all false, but it had to be in some way stated and proved, which thank God, Michael Abbott has done.”

Meanwhile, Archbishop Hepworth has been edging to get back into the Catholic Church, along with his Traditional Anglican Communion.

But he was dealt a blow in late November, being told he could only be accepted as a layperson, as his marriage, divorce and remarriage would preclude him returning as a priest.

Xenophon has not gone unscathed either. While some have defended his right to use his parliamentary privilege to disclose Monsignor Dempsey’s name, several current and former members of parliament, including the former leader of the Liberal Party, Alexander Downer, have stated they believe that he has abused his privilege.

The senate has offered Monsignor Dempsey a right of reply.

Nevertheless, the tear away determination of Xenophon to reveal Monsignor Dempsey’s name, while determinedly resisting the temptation to hear the monsignor’s perspective from his lawyer first, and the willingness of the media to run with the story, in the same way it did with Father Reynolds, has not arisen from spontaneous generation, Father McDonagh claims.

He points to a survey conducted in Ireland by Amarach Research, which found that 42 per cent of those questioned believed that around 20 per cent of priests had abused children and, of that 20 per cent, 27 per cent put the figure as high as 40 per cent. The reality is three.

While not downgrading the seriousness of even three per cent, Father McDonagh claims that this unbalanced belief is a result of sections of the media presenting an unbalanced picture of the clergy.

While both victims and the unjustly accused suffer irreparable damage, the depth of their suffering cannot be compared.

However, the point is that they should not be compared either, but in the current climate, it seems that certain sections of society and the media believe that priests are fair game.

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