Priest loses defamation lawsuit against newspaper who labeled him an abuser

The Adelaide Advertiser claim that John Fleming had “engaged in criminal sexual behavior” was true, not libel, a court has held

An high profile Australian priest who brought a defamation suit against a newspaper, accusing the Adelaide Advertiser and Sunday Mail of printing a false story that resulted in his losing his post as a college president, has lost his case. The South Australia Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper’s claim that Dr. John Fleming had “engaged in criminal sexual behavior” was true, not libel. A prominent leader of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Anglican Church of Australia, Fleming served in the early 1970’s as university chaplain, dean and vice-master of St Mark’s College in the University of Adelaide. During this period Fleming engaged in sexual relations with two young girls and a young man, the newspaper said. In 1987 Fleming left the Anglican Church and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He was subsequently ordained priest by the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide in 1995. A frequent contributor to the Australian media, Fleming founded the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute and served on the faculty of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. In 2004 he became the founding president of Campion College in Sydney and was appointed to UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee and by the Howard government in Australia to the Gene Technology Ethics Committee in 2002. In 2008 the Advertiser and Sunday Mail printed stories based on interviews with Fleming’s three victims alleging sexual abuse. The newspaper further stated the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide was aware of the abuse allegations when he ordained Fleming in 2005. On 24 Feb 2016 Justice Malcolm Gray ruled Fleming had engaged in “sexual misconduct, predatory sexual behaviour, morally reprehensible and deceitful conduct, an immoral, adulterous, homosexual affair, hypocrisy, abuse of trust, moral cowardice and false denial of sexual involvement.” Justice Gray ordered Fleming to pay the newspapers costs also. In his rule he stated: “Whilst the publications do not specifically label Fr Fleming as a hypocrite, the very nature of sexual misconduct alleged against him … serves to convey that imputation. The role of a priest carries with it an expectation or presumption of moral righteousness or rectitude, which is clearly not consistent with any form of sexual impropriety.” The vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide Fr Philip Marshall said the archdiocese would make a statement “in coming days”. The Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide Jeffrey Driver said a formal inquiry will be held into Fleming’s conduct. Last week the diocese’s Professional Standards Committee recommended an investigation into Fleming’s conduct while serving as an Anglican priest in light of the court’s findings. Though he has served as a Catholic priest for 10 years, Fleming has not renounced his Anglican orders. A finding of misconduct by the Professional Standards Committee may result in Fleming’s deposition from holy orders.


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