Catholic Church sex abuse case: When is a gag order imposed, and who is it meant to protect?

The AGC applied for a gag order in a case involving a member of a Catholic order who sexually abused two boys. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In a recent court case involving a member of the Roman Catholic order who sexually abused two boys aged between 14 and 15, the offender could not be named because of a gag order.

On Monday (June 6), the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said that it had applied for the gag order not to protect the interests of the accused, or of the Catholic order involved, but to safeguard the identity of the victims.

Based on the facts and circumstances of the case, the identification of the accused was likely to lead to the identification of the victims, said the AGC.

The gag order in the case covered the identity of the victims, the accused and his designation and appointment, as well as where the incidents occurred.

The Straits Times looks at what gag orders are and who they are meant to protect.

Q: What is a gag order?

A: Gag orders are court orders preventing the publication of the identities, or any information likely to lead to the identification, of minors involved in court proceedings or of victims of criminal offences, especially those of sexual crimes.

This includes the protected person's age, nationality, ethnicity, address, school, employment and family members.

Both the prosecution and the defence can apply for a gag order.

Q: When will the public prosecutor apply for a gag order?

A: The public prosecutor may apply for a gag order in cases involving sexual offences such as outrage of modesty, sexual penetration of a minor and rape; cases involving children and minors where the victim or witness is under the age of 18; and cases involving the sexual exploitation of trafficked victims.

The public prosecutor may also apply for a gag order to enable witnesses to testify freely during trial without fear of embarrassment from public scrutiny.

Q: Who are gag orders meant to protect? And why are sex offenders sometimes not named?

A: In upholding the decision to lift the gag order on Colin Chua Yi Jin, a student from a top British university who was found guilty of filming voyeuristic videos of several women, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the courts have the power to impose gag orders to protect victims - to prevent them from suffering further and so that victims are not afraid to come forward.

"A gag order has nothing to do with the benefit of accused persons," added the Chief Justice.

In Chua's case, the victims wanted his identity revealed for a variety of reasons, including to protect other women, despite the risk of their own identities being exposed.

Head of the criminal department at Quahe Woo & Palmer, Mr Sunil Sudheesan, said the same concept should apply in other cases.

"If the victims do not want to have the protection the gag order gives them and it's in the public interest to name the accused, then AGC can apply to have the gag order lifted.

"But I do not expect the AGC to check in with all the victims when it comes to gag orders. I understand that the AGC's default position is to apply for gag orders to proactively protect victims, and this is correct in my view," he said.

Q: Do gag orders apply only to the media?

A: Gag orders apply to everyone. Anyone who publishes information likely to lead to the identification of the protected person will be in breach of the gag order.

Breaching a gag order under the State Courts Act carries a fine of up to $5,000, a jail term of up to 12 months, or both.

Q: Does a gag order apply when a victim has died?

A: In a recent case involving a married school teacher, 47, who sexually abused a student who later committed suicide, the gag order on the identity of the victim and the accused remained even after the girl died.

The pair were in a relationship in 2011 when the girl was 15.

The AGC says a gag order may not be necessary if the protected person is dead. However, if revealing the dead person's identity may lead to the identification of other victims or witnesses whose identities need to be protected, the gag order may remain in force.

Mr Sudheesan believes the right call was made in the abovementioned case.

He said: "It would have tainted the memory of the student if they had named (the teacher). People would be able to link everything together, and those who didn't know she killed herself would then find out this way.

"This has to be balanced against finding and helping other victims out there. It's a very tricky conundrum.

"The bottom line is that you should come forward if you are a victim. The courts and AGC will protect your identity."

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