The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in print by The Ballina Shire Advocate on 5 February 2020 headed “Church in court against Priest”.
The article reported on a claim by a serving priest against the Catholic church for damages for sexual abuse, alleged to have occurred as a child while attending a Catholic boarding school. The article said it was understood that this was the first time a serving priest had brought such proceedings. The article reported that in the alleged incident, the priest engaging in the abuse “allegedly directed the plaintiff to kneel in front of him as he exposed and placed his erect penis into the boy’s mouth while repeatedly thrusting until he ejaculated”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether in publishing specific details of the alleged sexual assault the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The publication said the description of the sexual assault was contained in documents provided to the court and the special rights and protections on reporting court proceedings applied so as to facilitate public scrutiny of the courts. The publication said it was necessary for media covering courts to take reasonable steps to present material fairly and accurately and therefore the journalist has a greater onus than normal not to change, embellish, delete or paraphrase evidence presented in court. The publication also said that it was important to include the specific detail as the alleged abuse had only occurred on a single occasion.
The publication said while the description is graphic, it is not gratuitous, nor is it placed in the lead to the story or form part of the headline. The publication said that the statement is placed a third of the way through the story in a way that is designed to minimise any offence or distress to the reader but also meeting the requirement that it be fair and accurate. The publication said that the coverage of historic child sexual abuse, and bringing it out into the open, was so important that it led to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The publication said that the case is highly unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, in that it involves a current serving priest making claims of abuse from when he was a child which makes it of special interest to the public.
The publication said it decided against including a graphic content warning as the article had only one description of the alleged sexual abuse, as distinguished from previous articles wherein there were multiple references.
The Council considers that beyond the strict requirements of the law, publications have a further responsibility to ensure compliance with the Standards of Practice, which may extend to moderating or not reporting particular information that has been presented in open court. The Council accepts that some readers may have found the specific factual description of the sexual abuse distressing. However, the Council considers that it is in the public interest to report the facts of such abuse without employing general uninformative descriptions or euphemisms and notes that the article was reporting on a single alleged incident. The Council considers that the process and findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse support the benefit that specific factual reporting can have in encouraging other victims to report sexual abuse.
In some cases, a warning that an article contains graphic content may be appropriate. However, as in this case, the details were of a single alleged instance and appeared a number of paragraphs into the article, the Council considers that a warning was not required.
The Council concludes that the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety and that in any event, the article was sufficiently in the public interest. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.