The BBC has apologised for falsely accusing a famous Jesuit priest of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, leaving a surviving relative of the man “deeply shocked”.
Michael Maslinski complained to the public service broadcaster after it made a series of claims inaccurately linking Fr John Gerard to the 1605 Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament and kill King James I.
In the Bafta-nominated Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents, the BBC asserted that Fr Gerard not only enjoyed advance knowledge of the 1605 plot to kill King James I but that he also supported, blessed it and played a leading role in devising it.
The corporation has now accepted that there is no evidence to support such claims and that they represent a “breach in editorial standards”.
The BBC Complaints Unit has also apologised to Mr Maslinski, a 10-times great nephew of Fr Gerard.
Two episodes of the series, made originally for BBC2 by 72 Films but which at present is being repeated on BBC4, have been re-edited to remove the misleading assertions about Fr Gerard.
Mr Maslinski said: “John Gerard has been revered in my family for 400 years and I was deeply shocked that the series clearly implicated him in Gunpowder Plot, without any supporting evidence.
“As a priest, he certainly knew some of the plotters, but there is strong evidence that he knew nothing of the plot itself.
“I am very grateful to the BBC for upholding my complaint and for editing episodes two and three edited to give a more balanced account.”
The series tells the story of how Elizabeth I’s spies kept ahead of Catholic plots to overthrow the Protestant queen, and later her successor James I.
The activities of Lancashire-born Fr Gerard, who became famous for his daring escape of 1597 from the Salt Tower of the Tower of London, where he was being tortured, feature heavily in episode two and especially in episode three.
The priest also arranged for the escape of his jailer, knowing that he would take the blame for him breaking out.
Fr Gerard continued to minister secretly to underground Catholics until the mid-1600s when he was recalled to continental Europe to train other priests for the English Mission.
He later wrote his memoirs, The Autobiography of an Elizabethan, and died in the English College seminary in Rome in 1637.
A spokeswoman for the BBC confirmed that the Editorial Complaints Unit had investigated the complaint and had found that the documentary was inaccurate.
“When complaints of factual inaccuracies are brought to our attention we always look to investigate,” she said.
“In the case of Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents, the programmes have been amended in response to the ECU’s findings.”
The historical accuracy of BBC of some history programmes about the Reformation have drawn previous criticism from the Catholic Church.
Among the most controversial was its depiction of St Thomas More in the adaption of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, said it was “an extraordinary and perverse achievement” to turn St Thomas into a “scheming villain” while depicting Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s bloody henchman, as a hero.
Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth, said there was a “strong anti-Catholic thread” in the series, adding that it was “not historically accurate”.