Spectator blog backfires spectacularly

ABC - Media Watch
May 4, 2015

[with video]

A blog written by the publisher of The Hamilton Spectator, that criticised the punishment of a former priest for sexual assault, has hit a nerve with readers.

And that’s something you can’t say about our next story ... where the klaxons have been blaring since Anzac Day ... when this blog was published in the Hamilton Spectator, a little local paper in South West Victoria.

In the blog, the Spectator’s owner Richard Beks criticised the punishment of a former Catholic priest, Father Leslie Sheahan, for indecently assaulting a nine-year old girl in the 1970s.

Beks argued that slapping a nine-month suspended sentence on top of the priest’s three months behind bars was:

... pointless ...83 years of age ... and needing a walking frame to get about he’s obviously not going to re-offend ...

— The Hamilton Spectator, 25th April, 2015

But that was just the start, because Beks wanted to show we take some child abuse far too seriously. So next he cited the case of a local teacher, who’d received an 18-month jail sentence, and I quote:

... for merely touching an U16 girl’s breast and genitals ...

— The Hamilton Spectator, 25th April, 2015

Yes, merely touching her breast and genitals.

Why get upset about that? After all, Beks continued:

... something like this for the middle-age bachelor has the hallmarks of misguided curiosity.

— The Hamilton Spectator, 25th April, 2015

Hmm. Misguided curiosity. And since there were no threats or intimidation, said Beks:

... you could argue that this was closer to a case of appalling manners than major crime.

— The Hamilton Spectator, 25th April, 2015

Appalling manners? Or an appalling argument?

The teacher, Father Michael Reis, was in fact the headmaster of a local Catholic school, who had interfered with two young girls, aged 10 and 13, on at least seven separate occasions.

His crimes had been covered up by the Catholic church for 8 years, and he actually spent six months behind bars.

But, unsurprisingly, even readers who didn’t know these details, responded with outrage and alarm:

Revolting views expressed in this 'paper' by someone with very little sense and clearly zero knowledge of the adverse affects sexual assault has on it's victims. Appalling.

— Facebook, 29th April, 2015

A senior journalist at the Hamilton Spectator also hit out at Beks’s blog in an opinion column ... criticising his boss for being:

Out of line with the basis of our laws, out of line with community standards, out of line with various inquiries and Royal commissions into child sexual abuse.

— The Hamilton Spectator, 30th April, 2015

But while Beks was prepared to cop criticism in his paper he was not about to apologise, as he showed when the ABC’s Steve Martin asked him if ‘misguided curiosity’ was the right description of the crime:

STEVE MARTIN: Why is that not dismissing sexual assault?

RICHARD BEKS: Yeah, I think with the benefit of hindsight if I’d, I would have been wise not to use the word ‘merely’ because all the abuse that I’m currently getting on social media, that’s the one word that seems to be getting up everybody’s nose ...

— ABC Ballarat, Mornings with Steve Martin, 29th April, 2015

Beks pointed out that the judge had described Father Reis’s offence—which did not involve penetration—as at the lower end of the scale.

But that’s certainly not true of Leslie Sheahan, the other priest Beks was defending, who raped the nine-year-old girl with a carrot.

Next day the girl’s father also spoke to the ABC’s Steve Martin and told him that decades later his daughter is still a wreck.

VICTIM’S FATHER: The medical documents that she had are to prove her statements shocked me and I ... and the damage done to her internally is, on our way home my wife said to me ... she said, ‘you know Sheahan, what Sheahan did,’ she said, she said, ‘she would have had, had to be raped several times to cause the damage internally’.

— ABC Ballarat, Mornings with Steve Martin, 29th April, 2015

We hope Richard Beks was listening. And maybe he was, because two days ago in a new Spec Blog he finally and somewhat grudgingly apologised.

For the record, I fully understand the harm that sexual assault can do – and when it involves children it’s particularly repugnant.

I accept, too, that unwanted sexual advances are a crime in all circumstances, irrespective of which end of the scale they fall.

My apologies to any victims of sexual abuse and their families out there if I’ve added more stress to the burden they carry.

— The Hamilton Spectator, 2nd May, 2015

And you can read more about all tonight’s stories on our website, where you can read a full statement from Seven’s Sunday Night, get a transcript and download the program.

You can also catch up with us on iview and contact me or Media Watch on Twitter.

But for now until next week that’s all from us. Goodbye.


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