News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid hacked into a priest’s voice-mail messages to get scoops about British pop star Charlotte Church and her family, according to a witness statement described in court.
Father Richard Reardon, a Roman Catholic priest in Cardiff, Wales, hired a lawyer after police told him the newspaper’s former private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, had his phone number among thousands of pages of notes about victims, according to a court transcript of a Feb. 17 hearing in London.
Reardon “was informed by the police that his phone had been intercepted, and that has been made good on the documents,” Church’s lawyer, David Sherborne, said at the hearing last month in her privacy lawsuit against News Corp.’s U.K. unit. “It is very clear from Mr. Mulcaire’s notes.”
The claim that News of the World targeted the phone of a little-known priest may open a new front in the probe of News Corp. (NWSA), as the scandal has focused on the hacking of celebrities, lawmakers and crime victims. Reardon spoke with the Churches regularly and shared voice-mails and text messages with them, a person familiar with the matter said -- exchanges News Corp. employees may have been privy to by hacking.
“People of faith will be shocked that Rupert Murdoch’s staff would target a priest in this way -- it’s just not right,” said Tom Watson, a Labour party lawmaker who is on a parliamentary committee investigating the phone-hacking scandal.
‘Friends and Family’
The priest was on the “friends and family” mobile-phone list of Church’s father James, said the person, who declined to be identified because they aren’t authorized by the family to speak. Reardon went on a religious mission to Malawi with James Church in 2006, the person said.
Charlotte Church, 26, and her parents James and Maria settled their claim 10 days after the hearing for 600,000 pounds ($949,000). The company said its best-selling Sunday tabloid had intercepted her messages from when she was 16-years-old, hacked into her father’s voice mails and harassed her mother when she was suffering mental distress.
Reardon’s lawyer, Mark Thomson, declined to comment and a message left for Reardon at the Parish of St. Teilo’s in Cardiff wasn’t immediately returned. News International’s spokeswoman, Daisy Dunlop, declined to comment, as did the Metropolitan Police Service in London.
U.K., U.S. Probes
The allegations regarding the priest surfaced as New York- based News Corp. seeks to contain the hacking scandal and tackle a widening U.K. probe of bribery by journalists at its Sun tabloid. The company also faces legal issues in the U.S. where authorities are investigating if the alleged bribery violated American anti-corruption laws and whether victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were hacking targets.
Last month a person familiar with the matter said Mulcaire also had in his notes the phone numbers of U.S. citizens -- Church’s agent in Los Angeles and her publicist in New York.
The Feb. 17 hearing before Judge Geoffrey Vos was requested by London-based News International, according to the transcript. The publisher had sought to delay a civil trial of the case, citing late witness statements filed by Reardon and others as one reason why it needed more time.
Reardon “has been told by his solicitor that the only way the information on the page could appear is if Mr. Mulcaire had listened to one of his voice-mail messages,” Michael Silverleaf, News International’s lawyer, said at the hearing. The priest’s lawyer “is just plain wrong.”
A trial that would have set damage guidelines for other hacking cases was called off after Church, who sang at News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s wedding in 1999, when she was 13, reached a deal. Hers was the last remaining “test case” after dozens of other celebrities had already settled.
Church had sought special damages due to the distress the stories caused her mother. The News of the World in 2005 reported Church’s father was having an affair and used cocaine, and that her mother tried to kill herself as a result.
The transcript showed News International planned to challenge at trial Church’s claim that 33 articles were the result of phone hacking, and that as few as two stories stemmed from the practice. The company also said the paper had a legitimate source for the story about James Church’s affair -- a claim Sherborne rejected.
After the settlement was reached and News International apologized in open court, Church said the company was “only sorry it got caught.” The singer said she was forced to settle to avoid News Corp.’s lawyers seeking to discredit her mother during a trial in a bid to lower damages.
Mulcaire and the News of the World’s royal family reporter pleaded guilty in 2006 and served as long as six months in jail the next year for hacking the phones of eight people. Mulcaire was arrested again in December in a new probe, as the extent of the phone-hacking scandal was revealed for the first time in civil lawsuits and police revealed hundreds more people were targeted.
Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old News of the World in July after it was reported that journalists hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002.
During Mulcaire’s first arrest, more than 11,000 pages of notes were seized by police and placed in storage without being analyzed beyond what was necessary for the criminal case against him and the reporter. Investigators who re-opened the probe in January 2011 said the pages had more than 5,000 identifiable names and details suggesting 829 people had their phones hacked.
Church, a mother of two, told a separate inquiry into media ethics that News Corp.’s Sun may have hacked her phone to report her pregnancy in 2007, before she’d told her friends and family. While that claim wasn’t part of her case, the company said last month it had obtained the singer’s private medical information through phone-hacking and didn’t elaborate.
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