On Feb. 22, Paul Sheehan, a senior Australian conservative columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote “the untold story” of “Louise,” a woman who he claimed had been gang-raped and violated by a group of men “speaking Arabic.”
The column stated how in 2002, Louise had been sleeping inside her parked car near St. Mary’s Cathedral after finishing a late nursing shift at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, when six Arab men dragged her out.
The men brutally beat and raped her and then urinated in her mouth. Louise also claimed the New South Wales police refused to help her following the alleged sexual assault.
It was a heart-wrenching account, one that angered and upset everyone who read it. Moreover, Louise’s “untold” account came nearly two months after 80 women in Cologne, Germany, reported sexual assaults and muggings by men of Arab and North African descent on New Year's Eve. Therefore, her attacker’s Middle Eastern identity added to the outrage of people still reeling from Cologne’s attacks.
Unfortunately, as it later turned out, Louise’s story turned out to be a fabrication.
On Feb. 25, Sheehan published an apology in the SMH, admitting the explicit and disturbing details of the purported gang-rape given to him by a NSW nurse called Louise had been "carefully constructed on a foundation of embellishments, false memories and fabrications."
“Nobody but her knows what happened, and although I was given a considerable number of details about her experience that were credible, I acknowledge that there was not enough definite information to justify writing the story," Sheehan wrote.
The Australian journalist said he didn’t come across any red flags before or while writing the story.
“Now all I could see were flashing red lights, barriers and sirens,” he added.
He also apologized to the NSW police for their alleged indifference to a crime that never even occurred.
But is the apology enough? And is he apologizing to the right people? Not really.
False rape stories, like the one penned by Sheehan, have consequences that go beyond journalism ethics. They can put lives at stake.
Firstly, Sheehan owes an apology to all rape survivors. Among the many reasons why roughly 90 percent rape survivors don’t report their assault to the authorities, fear their stories will be doubted tops the list.
A Time Magazine article on rape culture in U.S. colleges quoted a 2007 study, according to which “21 percent of physically forced victims and 12 percent of incapacitated victims did not report because they didn’t think the police would take the crime seriously and 13 percent of forced victims and 24 percent of incapacitated victims feared the police would treat them poorly.”
Writer Jinan Younis noted something similar in her 2014 article, titled “Women Are Still Terrified Of Reporting Rape” for the Guardian.
"…More women are coming forward but that they are far from always being believed," she wrote.
So, in a world where rape survivors already go through a tough time to get their ordeal acknowledged, false or erroneous reports of rape make the process even more trying and inflict more pain on the affected person.
Sheehan also owes an apology to the NSW’s Arab Muslim community. At a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is already surging in the West, especially in the wake of the refugee crisis and the Cologne sex attacks against local women, publishing such an incendiary article was not just irresponsible — it was criminal.
An apology, however, won’t do. Sheehan and all the people responsible for publishing the story must be held accountable. There should be consequences.