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Cardinal backs away from threat to sue Twitter

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Nathan Partenza

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Twitter frenzy ...Cardinal George Pell.

Twitter frenzy ...Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal George Pell has backed away from a threat to sue Twitter for defamation over a comedian's tweet, after it was removed from the social media website.

Lawyers for Cardinal Pell had claimed a tweet by Catherine Deveny implied he was involved in the "sexual abuse of young boys".

A defamation claim sent to Twitter, based in San Francisco, on April 19 came after the social networking site allegedly failed to remove the offending tweet despite two complaint letters from Cardinal Pell's lawyers.

Apologised ... Catherine Deveny.

Apologised ... Catherine Deveny.

General Counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, Jennifer Cook, requested Twitter remove the tweet on the basis it contained "unlawful, defamatory content".

Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, appeared on the ABC's Q&A program for a one-off debate with atheist Richard Dawkins on April 9.

During the program, Cardinal Pell evoked laughter from the audience and sent the Twittersphere into a frenzy when he said: "When in England, we were preparing some young English boys...for Holy Communion."

A tweet sent by Deveny the following day, which she has since deleted, showed a picture of Pell's face surrounded by the partial quote: "When in England, we were preparing some young English boys".

Pell's lawyers said the omission by Deveny "intentionally and maliciously" took Cardinal Pell's actual comments "out of context".

"The publication ridicules Cardinal Pell and conveys to Australian readers the false and seriously defamatory imputation that Cardinal Pell is associated with the sexual abuse of young boys," the claim said.

The claim notes that while Twitter's computer servers may be outside Australia, the tweet was published in Australia and was therefore subject to Australian defamation law.

Mr Pell's lawyers had said Twitter was "jointly and severally liable" with Deveny for the defamation and called for it to delete the tweet.

But in a statement released late today, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Pell said he was grateful that the tweet had now been removed.

She told The Age that the Cardinal would no longer be pursuing legal action.

Following the legal letters to Twitter, Deveny, who has more than 16,000 Twitter followers, issued a statement on her blog saying she apologised unreservedly for any hurt Cardinal Pell may have suffered and that she never intended to suggest he was a paedophile.

"Clearly it was significant enough hurt and embarrassment caused for him to lawyer up and spend the Catholic Church's money to pursue defamation action against Twitter and me," she said.

"There must have been deep deliberation over the decision to spend thousands of dollars of parishioners' money on legal fees.

"Spending money that could have been spent feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless or alleviating suffering, instead of on defamation litigation, clearly illustrates how serious the breach I allegedly committed was in the eyes of Cardinal Pell."

Deveny noted many other Twitter users had distributed the image and called on Cardinal Pell to "forgive" her.

Carindal Pell's statement refuted that any funds raised from parishes had been used to meet the legal costs and that the legal work so far had been 'minimal'.

Deveny is no stranger to controversy when it comes to Twitter. She was sacked as a columnist for The Age following tweets she made during the 2010 Logie Awards.

Media law expert and author of Blogging and tweeting without getting sued Mark Pearson said it was yet to be determined whether Twitter was responsible for the content published by its users.

"Providers like Twitter and Facebook are not in the same category as users, but neither are they in the same category as Internet Service Providers," he said, referring to the innocent dissemination defence available to ISPs.

"They fall between those two somewhere and the courts throughout the world are trying to work out exactly which side of the line they fall on."

But Mr Pearson said the case should serve as a warning to others who post similar material on social media.

"Any threat of defamation should send a wake up call to everybody using social media that they are now publishers and they come under the same laws as journalists and other publishers have been subject to for centuries," he said.

"Every one of these cases is a reminder that people should be cautious when they are tweeting or using social media and just because something is funny or satirical does not mean that it is safe.

"Particularly with Twitter, there are so few characters to play with, that it is very hard to both defame someone and to qualify for the defences that might be available."