Three days ago The Sunday Times of Malta broke a story on its front page about a priest who is facing sexual abuse allegations. Today, the Malta Independent chose to run the same story as its own.
However, the point of this blog is more fundamental: we knew the identity of the priest and opted not to publish it. They found out his identity after we ran the story and decided to splash it with his photo on the front page of their newspaper. Aside from the obvious gap in timeliness, the burning question is: who got it right?
For anyone who sits in an editor’s chair, this is an immensely difficult call to make. Do you go with your natural journalistic instinct to publish all the facts because you want to come out with the full story before anyone else, or do you observe the principles that ought to guide your decision making? Sometimes the call is black and white, but more often than not it tends to be invaded by those very annoying shades of grey.
As we wrestled with a potentially hot and shocking story the day before publication last Saturday, the issue of whether to name or not to name was pinged back and forth. We decided against naming him. But to avoid a situation where suspicion could be cast on every priest in Malta, we opted to release certain details. We said he is 54, that he is based in Rabat and listed the charges against him.
There could well have been a public benefit to naming the priest. He is, after all, a figure known to a section of the public. But there is a counterweight to this argument: we reasoned, if one forgives the double negative, that just because he’s a priest does not mean he should not be entitled to the basic human right of innocent till proven guilty.
Yes, theoretically he could still benefit from that if we’d named him. Which is why in itself this factor was not enough. There had to be another reason that would cause us to resist what can be the very irresistible urge of disseminating information – which is, after all, what we are in the business of doing.
I strongly believe there was one clincher: although the police have prepared charges against this priest, he has not yet gone through the formal process of standing in the dock. He has not had those charges read out to him or been given the opportunity – in the appropriate forum – to react to these most serious allegations against him.
This, for us, is not an absolute bar to publication. When we have believed the circumstances are truly exceptional – the criminal case against the late judge Ray Pace springs to mind – we have opted to name a suspect just before he has been charged.
But we have only done this in very rare circumstances and where we believe the case concerns public confidence in one of the country’s institutions. A priest accused of sexual abuse – unless, perhaps, he is, a bishop – does not fall into this category in our view. Quite the contrary. The very fact he is accused of sexual abuse means that the reportage needs to be treated with even more care.
Corruption cases are not pleasant, and they are not viewed too kindly by the majority of Maltese. But, in their own sort of way, people accept that they happen and are prepared to forgive the offender. Sexual abuse cases are on a completely different plane. People accused of such crimes are considered pariahs and the stigma attached to them is something that never goes away. This is a factor that should not be taken lightly by people in the media.
We can, of course, do nothing to mitigate the pain suffered by a wrongly accused person once he or she has stood in the dock. We have a duty to publish the details of events that take place in a public forum. Nor will we hold back when a person has been convicted of sexual abuse. It is, indeed, a terrible crime.
But we would be going down a very slippery slope if we, as a matter of practice, name (and effectively shame) people before they have had the opportunity to step into a court room. It is not fair on the potential defendant, and does not reflect well on the media.