A RUNAWAY slur about religion Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), unwittingly let loose on the internet by the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program Inc (CSAPP), was reined in by DLA Phillips Fox in Melbourne.
Overseen by national pro bono partner, David Leggatt, but run by solicitor Cathryn Prowse, the case was only the second time that the controversial Religious and Racial Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) has been tested.
With about 3000 members in the US and only 60 in Australia, Prowse said the initial hurdle lay in trying to prove that OTO was a recognised religion, in order for the Act to apply. In view of this, she spent a considerable time with members of OTO, compiling very detailed witness statements.
“It had been on foot for about a year and half [and] it was relatively active the entire time,” Prowse said.
“To get to a hearing with the OTO members and having to detail all of their practices and beliefs … was quite a large effort.”
The law suit arose after CSAPP had published on its website a document that alleged OTO was engaged in satanic or religious ritualistic sexual abuse of children. The document quickly spread across the world, even becoming fodder for conspiracy theorists who alleged the OTO’s practices had infiltrated the highest echelons of government.
After discovering the document, OTO issued a complaint of racial vilification under the Act, and was referred to Phillips Fox by the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH), Victoria.
“What was really interesting about this case was that there were these private people who found themselves the subject of an email campaign — that they were engaging, because of their beliefs, in paedophilia, child sacrifice and satanic acts — which were just vile,” Leggatt said.
“[Prowse] did an exceptional job, in what is very demanding work,” he said. “It was very emotional. They were very serious allegations, and as we were going into new territory there was just a lot of heat in the matter.”
Leggatt said pro bono cases, such as this one, are actively encouraged by the firm, with lawyers urged to dedicate five per cent of their professional time to the cause.
Manager of the public interest scheme, Tabitha Lovett, said PILCH’s membership is made up of 28 law firms, 7 corporate in-house legal departments, 3 professional organisations, 5 universities and 27 community legal centres. Individual cases are assessed on merit by PILCH, and the likelihood of either testing legislation, or serving the public interest.
“We try and spread the work out across all the firms,” Lovett said. “It’s really a case of trying to match [the work] with firms that have got expertise in the area, [assuming] they’ve actually got the resources to run the matter.”
Phillips Fox ultimately succeeded in showing the document had no factual basis, with CSAPP and the original author being forced to formerly withdraw their allegations. Lovett said both PILCH and the client were very pleased with the settlement, arrived at in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, human rights division last week.