The Belfast Telegraph breached the Editor’s Code of Practice by publishing allegations of sexual abuse made by a woman against her two brothers without contacting them to verify the claims.
The newspaper’s report included an interview with the student who claimed to have been abused by her two older siblings while a child.
Both men deny the allegations and complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that the article breached accuracy and privacy clauses under the code.
They expressed “serious concern” that the newspaper had published her claims as fact “without taking any steps to verify them”, said IPSO’s complaints committee.
The article was published on 25 May 2016 and was lifted from the Telegraph’s sister title Sunday Independent.
Though it did not name either of the woman’s brothers, and the woman herself had a different surname, it did include a photograph of her.
The brothers told IPSO they considered the article both “inaccurate” and “intrusive”, said the regulator.
“They said the false accusations about their sister’s ‘older brothers’, coupled with a photograph of her, had identified and implicated them,” Ipso said.
“The fact that their sister had adopted another surname did not render her anonymous within their community: neighbours, friends, work colleagues and family had understood that the allegations related to them.
“They considered that their reputations had been damaged irreparably.”
The story included details about a civil case brought by the woman against her brothers which was settled out of court.
The newspaper described court proceedings as a “trial” and the settlement as a payment of “damages”, which the two men said was “misleading”.
They told the committee their sister had made an “unsuccessful attempt to bring civil proceedings against them” and that “a judge had never ‘ruled against them’”.
The committee said: “They considered that the assertion that they were to pay ‘damages’ to their sister had wrongly suggested that there had been a pronunciation or admission of guilt; no amount of damages had been awarded or was due to their sister.”
The Telegraph’s story also claimed a nun had given “sworn testimony” supporting the woman’s story ahead of civil proceedings.
The nun’s account claimed a doctor had been made aware of the woman’s abuse at the time and had taken steps to ensure the girl would not get pregnant to protect the town’s image.
But, when asked to provide this testimony by IPSO, the Telegraph was unable to do so.
In response to the brothers’ concerns, the Telegraph offered to publish a correction on page 24, the page on which the original article had appeared, and beneath the article online.
It read: “On 25 May 2016, we reported Hazel Larkin’s claim that she was sexually abused by two of her brothers when she was a child, and received ‘damages’ in an out-of-court settlement.
“The article also stated that a nun had said in sworn testimony that a priest and doctor had discussed the abuse at the time and had taken steps to avoid it becoming public knowledge.
“We have been asked to make clear that Ms Larkin’s brothers deny their sister’s allegations; they have never been charged or tried with any crime in relation to the claims or ordered to pay damages; they also consider that no such testimony from a nun has ever existed.”
IPSO found the Telegraph had breached accuracy clauses but it did not uphold complaints about a breach of privacy.
The complaints committee said: “The article was a report of the woman’s version of events; the newspaper had been entitled to report her account, including her position that she had been damaged physically by the abuse.
“However, the newspaper had made no attempt to obtain the complainants’ version of events before publication, or to ascertain whether its sister publication had already done so.
“The publication of the assertion that a nun’s ‘sworn testimony’ had stated that others had been informed of the abuse at the time seemingly supported the woman’s allegations.
“However, during IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper had been unable to provide any such testimony.
“The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). Given the seriousness of the allegations, the absence of the complainants’ denials was significantly misleading. A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).”
IPSO said the correction prepared by the newspaper was “sufficient to remedy the established breach of the Code” and should be published.