The editorial fin the weekly ‘The Spec ‘Blog’ section commented on the case of a former priest who had lost an appeal against a prison sentence for the indecent assault of a nine year old girl and case involving a former Hamilton teacher who was sentenced to imprisonment for 18 months.
The piece, which was published on April 25, opined that the suspended sentence for an 83 year old infirm priest living in a nursing home “seemed pointless” and that he was “obviously not going to re-offend”. The former teacher was said to have “got 18 months gaol for merely touching an U16 girl’s breast and genitals”.
At the time the editorial attracted national criticism, with ABC Media Watch questioning the views expressed by the newspaper’s owner Richard Beks.
In its defence after a complaint to the press council the local South West Victoria paper argued the editorial’s intention was to consider the wide range of impacts that such abuse can have, adding the editorial repeated what a judge had said and it had done all it could to rectify any misunderstandings.
It told the APC that it had provided substantial opportunities for readers and editorial staff to publish criticism of the editorial and had published a follow-up “blog” in which it acknowledged the word “merely” had been “thoughtless” and “clearly offensive”.
The Hamilton Spectator said sexual assault involving children was “particularly repugnant”, that it apologised to victims of sexual abuse and their families, and noted this apology had received wide distribution across several media outlets and via social media.
While the APC accepted that some of the comments expressed in the editorial may have been the result of poor expression, the effect was to trivialise the crime and crimes of that kind.
It was the APC’s conclusion that expressions used with reference to child sexual assault, in particular terms such as “merely touching” and “misguided curiosity” reflect a significant misunderstanding of the nature and effects of this type of offending and of its seriousness.
The Council noted the paper did publish a number of responses to the editorial piece, while a follow-up editorial expresses regret – but did not apologise. A subsequent piece published in May contained a general but qualified apology that began with a claim that the publication’s critics were like a “lynch mob”.
It was the APC’s view that the editorial would have caused substantial offence to a large number of victims, their families and to members of the wider community.
The council ruled the measures taken by the Hamilton Spectator did not remove the effects of the breach “nor does the rather grudging apology prevent the matter being treated as a significant breach”.
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