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May 8, 2012

Devamation: George Pell pursues legal action over a Deveny tweet

Cardinal George Pell's lawyers pursued legal action against Twitter after comedian Catherine Deveny tweeted a photo which Pell's lawyers say "conveys ... seriously defamatory imputations".


Cardinal George Pell’s lawyers pursued legal action against Twitter after comedian Catherine Deveny tweeted a photo which Pell’s lawyers say “conveys … the false and seriously defamatory imputations that Cardinal Pell is associated with the sexual abuse of young boys”.

Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, appeared on the ABC’s Q&A recently for a one-on-one debate with athiest Richard Dawkins. During the show Pell said: “When in England, we were preparing some young English boys … for Holy Communion.” During the pause, members of the audience began laughing (others booed those who had laughed) and the Twitter world lit up.

A tweet posted by Deveny on April 10 showed a picture of Pell’s face surrounded by the first section of the sentence that he uttered on Q&A.

Two weeks ago Deveny received an email from the Twitter legal department containing correspondence sent to the social media organisation by lawyers Corrs, Chambers and Westgarth on behalf of Pell. The letters demanded that Deveny’s tweet be removed. Corrs, Chambers and Westgarth’s letter to Twitter states:

“By intentionally and maliciously failing to include the words ‘for Holy Communion’ the publication ridicules Cardinal Pell and conveys to Austrlaian readers the false and seriously defamatory imputations that Cardinal Pell is associated with the s-xual abuse of young boys …

“Under Australian law, Twitter is jointly and severally liable with the account holder for the defamation. Also, under Australia law, damage to Cardinal Pell’s reputation caused by the post is presumed. In the circumstances, we demand that Twitter immediately removes the Publication. Should it fail to do so, we will hold it liable for the damage and harm caused to Cardinal Pell’s reputation.”

Deveny removed the tweet and placed an apology on her blog, although the legal letters did not demand that she do either. She also tells Crikey that she did not create the image — or start the internet meme — and that many others had also been tweeting the image.

Why pursue Twitter rather than Deveny herself? “My two guesses are that they didn’t want to appear as bullies and I don’t think they had any idea that I would get that correspondence,” Deveny told Crikey.

“They don’t want to appear as bullies despite the fact they have a long history shutting down people who are saying things they don’t want to hear.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted to shut up a high-profile feminist, atheist who they’ve banned from speaking in Mildura and have possibly try to shut me down other places which I don’t have evidence of, but I have hearsay of.”

Back in 2010 Deveny was banned from speaking at a Catholic girls school in Mildura because she “held views that were not consistent with the Catholic Church”. “Everybody has the right to their reputations, but pursuing this makes them look kind of petty,” said Deveny.

Pell is also on Twitter under the username @CardinalPell, but he doesn’t seem to be an active user, since the locked account follows zero people and has only one follower (although he’s tweeted 19 times).

Deveny herself has received no contact or letter from Pell’s legal team. As Deveny writes on her blog:

“I apologize unreservedly for any hurt Cardinal Pell may have suffered from me tweeting a meme on April 10 that used his image and five words he said on Q&A the night before. Clearly it was significant enough hurt and embarrassment caused for him to lawyer up and spend the Catholic Church’s money to pursue defamation action against Twitter and me. There must have been deep deliberation over the decision to spend thousands of dollars of parishioners’ money on legal fees. Spending money that could have been spent feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless or alleviating suffering, instead of on defamation litigation, clearly illustrates how serious the breach I allegedly committed was in the eyes of Cardinal Pell.”

Deveny pointed us in the direction of other comedians who publicly criticise the Catholic Church, including Louis CK who has a skit about the church only existing because of p-edophilia and Tim Minchin with his popular tune Pope Song. She also notes that she’s highly involved with several charities either started or funded by the Catholic Church, including the Edmund Rice Centre and Griefline.

As well as demanding the offending tweeted be deleted, the legal letter also said Twitter must “not further publish any Twitter publication or publications substantially similar to the Publication”.

It would be “very difficult for Twitter to comply with any such order”, Mark Pearson, author of Blogging and tweeting without getting sued and a professor of journalism at Bond University, told Crikey.

Twitter can remove a repeat offender’s account, since users agree not to post offensive comments when they sign up. But is Twitter responsible for the content published by one of its users? “This is an area of the law that yet’s to be decided: the liability of such providers for material that they are hosting,” said Pearson.

“Traditionally there’s been a defence for what’s called innocent dissemination by such hosts — ISPs, newsagents and the like. The question [goes to whether] services like Facebook and Twitter have that immunity. It seems they would certainly in the United States [under the first amendment]. But whether that would also apply in Australia depends on such cases.”

Back in February Joshua Meggitt began pursuing legal action against Twitter after writer Marieke Hardy wrongly named the Melbourne man as being responsible for a hate blog against her.

This also isn’t the first time Deveny’s Twitter antics have got her in trouble, after tweets sent on Logies night back in 2010 saw her dumped as a regular Age columnist.

Deveny tells Crikey that although she has no plans to tone down her criticism of the church or anyone else online, she is now more aware of defamation law. Tonight she will be participating in a Wheeler Centre debate arguing for the affirmative for the topic “Freedom of Speech is Over-Rated”.



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31 thoughts on “Devamation: George Pell pursues legal action over a Deveny tweet

  1. secondsoprano

    Brilliant. Now THAT’s an apology…

  2. Mack the Knife

    Way past time that these churches who have become political shills be taxed as money making concerns- the lot of them.

  3. ianjohnno1

    Heresay? How about hearsay…hmmmm?

  4. Edward James

    Would I as a property owner be exposed to defamation action if someone posted one of their comments on an external wall of my property? Edward James

  5. Damien

    It could have been worse for Ms Deveney… a less tolerant religious leader might have issued a fatwah.

  6. Molly

    For what it’sworth, I was educated by the Catholic school sytem. Although a failed Catholic, it does sadden me to see the actions of a small minority used as a basis to redicule the majority of hard working, self-sacrificing dedicated individuals in Catholic education and the Church. I recently attended a 40 year high school reunion. The teachers still living were so proud of the input they had to producing individuals with an understanding of social and moral values, honesty and integrity. Many of my work colleagues refer in derogatory terms to the Catholic “system” yet can’t define what the bigotry emanates from when pushed to explain…and many send their kids to Catholic schools…”because the quality of the education and teachers is first class” – their words…..go figure that one. Give it a rest. Aussies hate smart arses. The so-called “comedians” are of that ilk, unable to produce humour above gutter level. Molly.

  7. secondsoprano

    @SBH. Except she didn’t do anything of the sort. She merely quoted his own words. Out of context, sure, but it’s hardly in the realms you’re suggesting. He would have been better advised to let it drop and spend the money on social services as Ms Deveny suggests.

  8. kennethrobinson2

    It would be great to see George baby on the stand, being grilled by a good barister!.

  9. Steve777

    No one was making insinuations about the Cardinal and I have no reason to believe that he isn’t a good man. But perhaps this incident should have given the good Cardinal cause to reflect on why such an innocent-sounding phrase has the sort of associations it does when linked to the Church, its Hierarchy or its clergy. If all was well, people would of course assume that the boys were being prepared for a sports carnival, Holy Communion or whatever, with no cause for tittering or Twittering. Rather than reach for his lawyers, perhaps he should reflect on why the reputation of the Church is in the cellar, and direct his efforts towards deciding how the Church can best atone for the abominable behaviour of too many of its servants and how best to ensure that such behaviour never happens again. Silencing a few Tweeters is just not going to cut it.

  10. Meski

    Pell has obviously never heard of the Streisand Effect… (quoted from wiki rather than linked, and incurring moderation, however, if you start typing streisand into google, its the first thing to pop up (pell is starting to do that in google now))

    The Streisand effect is a primarily online phenomenon in which an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose attempt in 2003 to suppress photographs of her residence inadvertently generated further publicity.
    Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters, to suppress numbers, files and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos & spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.[1][2]
    Mike Masnick of Techdirt coined the term after Streisand, citing privacy violations, unsuccessfully sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and Pictopia.com for US$50 million in an attempt to have an aerial photograph of her mansion removed from the publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs.[1][3][4] Adelman said that he was photographing beachfront property to document coastal erosion as part of the government sanctioned and commissioned California Coastal Records Project.[5][6] Before Streisand filed her lawsuit, “Image 3850” had been downloaded from Adelman’s website only six times; two of those downloads were by Streisand’s attorneys.[7] As a result of the case, public knowledge of the picture increased substantially; more than 420,000 people visited the site over the following month.[8]

  11. Edward James

    Yeah well Pells place of catholic business relies on a point of law to avoid paying compensation to victims of abuse ! Edward James

  12. Michael de Angelos

    I fully support Cardinal Pell in this action despite my reservations about some of his beliefs.

    Why should someone be defamed just because the internet is there and easy to use?

    Too many people think they can now publish the equivalent of Poison Pen letters and get away with it. Kudos to Catherine Deveny for acting promptly and avoiding further grief all round.

  13. Michael de Angelos

    Meski-those things happened under USA law which Google/Twitter etc would love to make us all adhere to but fortunately courts around the world are saying otherwise.

  14. puddleduck

    Notwithstanding all the criticism of the Catholic Church, and the valid point about spending money, Deveny is a dill. She got the chop for some bad taste tweets and only now she’s “more aware of defamation law”?

  15. Edward James

    George Pell is the acknowledged confident of politicians yet his ways are not consistent with correcting the abuse done to this nations children. Edward James

  16. Edward James

    I am aware of defamation law Puddle duck But I am also aware of so many labor and liberal coalition supporters who are rusted on and no matter what will ignore the truth no matter what! Edward James 0243419140

  17. Edward James

    Long over due for voters to stare asking questions when the opportunity is provided or them 0243419140 Edward James

  18. Meski

    The Streisand effect is universal, that’s just the name first given to it, Michael.

    If the shoe, as it were, didn’t fit the church quite so well, then he wouldn’t have sued for defamation. That the audience immediately recognised it, and laughed, is an indictment on the church.

  19. zut alors

    The Cardinal appears to have forgotten a vital line in the text which recommends turning the other cheek.

    Frankly, his organisation has every reason to be hyper-sensitive on this issue – all of their own making.

  20. Meski

    And kudos to Deveny for writing such a damning ‘apology’

  21. mattsui

    I’d suggest we all make a copy of the – apparently widely available, though I’ve never seen it – piece of amateur propoganda that’s so upset M. Pell. Take it and staple it to the nearest lamp-post. We’ll then wait to see if the try and sue the post, the power company or the pine plantation!

  22. mattsui

    That said. There are also laws against villification on religious grounds and if not for the fact that the target in this case is a Cardinal, Deveny & co. (although probably not Twitter) would be skirting pretty close to those.

  23. Malcolm Street

    I don’t like this one little bit. It would have been one thing if they’d threatened Deveny directly, but I can only interpret threatening Twitter instead as an attempt to shut up anyone who makes unfavourable comments (satirical or otherwise) on the Church.

    I’d expect they haven’t a hope in Hell (sorry…), as Twitter I assume is seen as a common carrier like Australia Post.

  24. T'Anne Mills

    Pell is guilty of “maliciously failing to include the words” ALL THE TIME! In particular his statements on Q&A about Darwin claiming to be a theist in his autobiography. It’s a shame Darwin is not around to launch a defamation claim…

  25. SBH

    It’s ironic that the last time Deveny and twitter had such an imbroglio, the issue was people deliberately misinterpreting her tweet about Bindi Irwin and quoting it out of context. Very much what has happened to Pell here.

    It really worries me how swiftly so many of you drop any notion of rights a citizen should be able to rely on in a democracy when they might touch (however remotely) on a pet cause. I’ve got no time for Pell and his religion but that doesn’t mean that Deveny can freely insinuate he is guilty of a most vile crime.

    Secondly, the Church’s actions don’t seem to me to be extreme or threatening. They contacted the publisher, apparently privately, and their personal correspondence was then passed on to a third party, again apparently without their knowledge or consent. I dare say any other individual or corporation with sufficient resources would have acted more vigorously. At any rate it draws a very long bow to say that the Church in any way threatened or bullied Deveny.

    Yes maybe Pell should do more to expose, confront and serve up to justice the monsters in his church but that doesn’t somehow make it ok to accuse him of this crime. That sort of tactic finds itself most at home in the mob howling of the anti-intellectual right and should be shunned by civilised people.

  26. Hh@ncable.com.au

    The mildura incident was actually an international women’s day event at a public venue owned by the catholic church. The rest is true and once the catholic school banned her from speaking there, the media attention doubled the audience numbers and we moved it to a men’s club!

  27. botswana bob

    Who doesn’t the eminent cleric instruct his solicitors to issue a writ against Satan?

  28. oldskool

    Noone accused him of this crime, in fact, Deveny did not even mention any of the issues that have been raised. The abuse of children within the Catholic Church has become a meme unto itself, if you were unaware of the history, or if you thought that the Church had dealt with the situation correctly, you would never had made that link and as someone mentioned earlier, you would assume that the “were prepared” for sports, confession, bible classes any number of mundane things. Unfortunately for the Church they are now on par with that other mob- you know;
    “you know who else didn’t stand for any sort of criticism of their methods…”

  29. mikeb

    Deveny’s greatest sin is that she isn’t funny – and hasn’t been for some time. The subsequent smart-arse “apology” also lacks wit and (of course) grace. I guess Pell is an easy target as he doesn’t do himself any favours and doesn’t have supporters willing to blow themselves up to silence critics. Presumably Deveny will also being laying into Jewish Rabbi’s now that they’ve got a little scandal on the plate?

    Fow what it’s worth I went through 13 years of Catholic education and was even an alter boy for a number of years. I seemed to have missed out on the compulsory molestation that some quarters seem to suggest is a given. It’s got to the stage where I’m wondering what was wrong with me. Perhaps I need counselling to overcome that sense of rejection? Probably however the answer is that by far the greater majority of Catholic or Anglican or Jewish or Muslim clergy & teachers are good honest people who try their best to make a positive impact in the world. That being said any offenders referred to should be exposed and removed once proven guilty. No excuses for that.

  30. HaTeMaiL

    Considering Pell likes to shove his nose into the political arena, then he had better be prepared to have it bitten off.
    Just because he is a Cardinal does not make him immune to public scrutiny just like any other porkertician with their snouts in the public trough.

  31. Charlie Maigne


    I went through 10 years of Catholic education (of the Filipino and Irish flavours) and I had a giggle both at Pell’s unfortunate pause and Deveny’s ‘apology’. Each to their own.

    I agree with your comment regarding the vast majority of religious clergy and teachers being good people, and so too would most rational observers. The problem with the Catholic Church is its public reaction to the scandals, and how far short it falls from reflecting the expectations of not only the broader community but of its own followers as well.

    As Oldskool mentioned above, the criticism (both serious and comedic) will continue until the Church is seen to respond to the abuses with the fervour that such grievous offences demand.

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