A legal torpedo was launched against online news service LifeSiteNews.com (LSN) on Dec. 21, 2010, following a long period of ongoing friction between Fr. Raymond Gravel (a Catholic priest and one-time Bloc Québecois MP) and LSN. The priest sued LSN, five of its journalists and managers, plus Campagne Québec-Vie (CQV) and its former director, Luc Gagnon. According to the complainant, “the statements of the defendants had only one goal, namely to destroy the plaintiff’s reputation, to ridicule him, exposing him to contempt and hatred in order to see the religious authorities react.” For their part the defendants allege that they acted in good faith and always in reaction to the disturbing, provocative, and public pronouncements of Fr. Gravel.
LSN often publishes articles critical of public statements, policies, or decisions taken by different public figures while commenting on culture, life and family related issues. On its masthead, LSN prides itself on “providing balance and more accurate coverage on culture, life and family matters than is usually given by other media.” It believes that “life and family issues like abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality are all interconnected in an international conflict affecting culture and morality in all nations.” In fact, 20 years ago, the late John Paul II contacted international pro-life groups urging them to become involved at the United Nations because of these concerns. Within this framework, LSN attempts to provide its readers with up-to-date information on this conflict of cultures. Fr. Gravel, a Quebec priest and media personality, received attention in at least 39 LSN articles because he made controversial comments on topical issues of religion, culture, and morality typically covered by the online media outlet.
Important issues are at stake, the legal resolution of which could impact on essential freedom of the press and right to fair comment.
Fr. Gravel is a priest in the Quebec Diocese of Joliette. He has occupied a manifestly public role in the province of Québec for several decades, often expressing views contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church on sundry subjects including abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” and women priests. He has also tweaked the noses of church leaders, alleging failure of church leaders to speak in a welcoming, inclusive, non-judgmental manner on sensitive moral issues. As a consequence, his frequent utterances in print and on radio and television have brought him into the public limelight as a dissenting exponent of the teachings of the Catholic faith. But his views don’t sit well with the Church.
Public disagreements with stated positions happen all the time in the fields of politics and religion. Disagreements can become polemical in nature. The mission of LSN is to defend the pro-life movement, expose untruths, and combat trends and forces it deems harmful to life and family in healthy moral societies. Fr. Gravel should be a natural ally of his church’s official position on life and family issues, LSN maintains, after all there are clear church teachings (outlined in papal encyclicals, in Canon Law, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and various papal letters) that a Catholic priest must uphold in order to remain in good standing in his Church. These key principles and values include among others the impermissibility of euthanasia, the impossiblility of women’s ordination, and the unacceptability of abortion.
So why is Fr. Gravel suing LSN? He perceives himself to be the target of negative, unfair, and unwarranted criticism over a protracted period of time. A close, careful scrutiny of the articles appearing in LSN files and in Fr. Gravel’s own copious writings and public statements shows a discrepancy between the priest’s claims and those of LSN. The latter insists that it has not held him up for vilification, but rather, with charity and without malice, it has brought his public pronouncements to the attention of its readers. It was fulfilling its duty by writing honestly and accurately about controversial topics that those with the proper authority could and should have acted upon.
Fr. Gravel remains a priest in good standing in his diocese of Joliette. Bishop Gilles Lussier of that diocese gave him the ‘green light’ to go ahead and run as a Bloc Quebecois candidate in the by-election of 2006 in the riding of Repentigny, despite church policy prohibiting such political involvement (papal decree, May 18 1998, Ad tuendam fidem). Two years later in 2008 he did not present himself for re-election. According to Fr. Gravel, as reported by CBC, the Vatican had given him the stark choice of choosing between a political career and the priesthood. Fr. Gravel blamed LSN and others named in the defamation suit, for the Vatican’s actions against him. He alleges that the “harassing” reports of LSN constitute libel and defamation of character, resulting in his loss of a much coveted political career.
LSN claims in its defense that it has accurately reported statements that he made and which have appeared in Quebec journals, newspapers, radio and television outlets, as well as in foreign media and on English language CBC. They petitioned the court to dismiss the suit as both “excessive and unreasonable” and as designed to limit their constitutionally protected freedom of expression as journalists. Their contention is that the plaintiff created for himself the reputation of a polemicist and provocateur, as he had admitted in an interview in the beginning of 2006 to a reporter from the homosexual magazine Le Point. “We must protest, demand, provoke and even shock, so that pockets of resistance may fade and disappear,” he said referring to the acceptance of homosexuality.
Some questions beg answers. Why did Fr. Gravel wait until 2011 to launch his defamation suit?
How was he able to openly express himself and act for so many years in apparent opposition to the Catholic Church’s teachings without public rebuke from his bishop? What was the reason or justification for the special dispensation given him to let him run for public office against the policy and wishes of the Vatican? Who had the authority to break official Church rules in this area?
There has been a growing chasm between popular culture and the Catholic Church in Quebec, between the faithful clergy and priests wanting to change the church in order to appeal to a more secularized society. The public likes to be accommodated. Many people like to pick and choose what elements or which church rules and beliefs to follow or take seriously, but Catholic Church teaching is not like a cafeteria of choices. Fr. Gravel would place himself in the vanguard of such people. In the official suit submitted to the court he states nonetheless that “he has always been faithful to the magisterium of the Church… and that sometimes he has expressed personal opinions on controversial topics, including homosexuality, abortion, secularism and religious education in schools,” and that he “has always done so in good faith, while respecting both his commitment as a priest and as a Catholic Church member.” And yet in an interview with Léo Kalinda, of Radio-Canada (June 20, 2004) Fr. Gravel had this to say about some of his brave views: “As for me, I am pro-choice, and I will receive Communion on Sunday. There isn’t a bishop on this earth who will prevent me from receiving Communion on Sunday. Not one. Not even the Pope.”
Such statements suggest that in his mind he can have his cake and eat it too. On abortion he considers himself to be pro-choice not pro-abortion. He insists that LSN has lied about this. John-Henry Westen, editor of LSN, and one of the defendants explains that the use of language is important: to be pro-choice is to be in favour of abortion as a legitimate solution to a pregnancy. As he says, “is it defamatory to call someone who admits to being pro-choice ‘pro-abortion?’ Would one be pro-choice with respect to pedophilia, or rape, or other heinous actions. What conclusion would a reasonable person draw?”
At the heart of things there is a different idea of church and what a church should do and believe. There is a danger for LSN and the Catholic Church because opinion as reflected in the general media – whether it be letters to the editor or comments on websites – appear to be sympathetic to activists like Fr. Gravel when it comes to certain moral issues on life and family.
Superior Court Justice Paul Mayer in a ruling issued on Jan. 11 decided that the suit can proceed to trial. He rejected several motions of the defendants to have Fr. Gravel’s lawsuit declared without foundation in law, or being reproachable or abusive in intent.
This is a serious setback for the pro-life cause. A long legal process could exhaust the operational funds of LifeSiteNews. According to the U.S. newspaper The Wanderer the cost of the suit, which has not yet gone to trial – and may not do so until 2014 or later – has already cost LSN $170,000. If they lose, they could be on the hook for a half million dollars in damages and an equal amount in legal costs if they are forced to cover Fr. Gravel’s lawyers’ fees also. A key pro-life communications source could go out of business.
Fr. Gravel has promised that if he wins the suit, the $500,000 requested in punitive damages would go to organizations like Development and Peace, which LSN has exposed as cooperating with pro-abortion groups in the developing world.
It would apear that Fr. Gravel continues to challenge LSN and the pro-life movement at large. His defamation suit could undermine freedom of the press as traditionally understood. It is difficult to predict the final outcome of the suit. Surprises have abounded throughout the affair.
Dan Di Rocco, a former educator, is circulation manager and chair of the business board for The Interim. For a detailed, thorough investigation and commentary on the case thus far, the reader is referred to http://is.gd/9yCKH3. The website is in French and it offers a complete chronology and summary of events surrounding the legal dispute to the end of 2011.