Anti-abortion picketers Roland and Anna von Marburg will receive $180,000 in damages from a retired obstetrician after they claimed they were defamed by comments on the Facebook page for which he was a spokesperson.
The husband and wife are members of Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, a Catholic Church-affiliated group which conducts vigils in Australia and the United States outside clinics where abortion is performed.
Members of the group erect signs, pray, and approach women entering Albury's Fertility Control Clinic.
BuzzFeed News last year revealed some protesters also handed foetal dolls to patients as they entered the clinic.
One of the regular picketers also sprays "holy water" along the footpath outside the clinic as women enter.
On 16 October 2014, Roland and Anna von Marburg attended a vigil outside the clinic and were photographed by an abortion rights protester.
The photographs were then posted on the "Right to Privacy Albury" Facebook page.
Other Facebook users posted comments below the photo, which became the subject of the defamation proceedings, court documents show.
The couple then pursued legal action.
The case dragged on for almost three years until a settlement was reached last week between the von Marburgs and retired Wodonga obstetrician Pieter Mourik, who will pay the couple $180,000. He has also published an apology on the Facebook page of which he was a spokesperson.
Mourik, who practiced in reproductive health in Albury for almost four decades, is staunchly pro-choice and has previously expressed to BuzzFeed News his concern about the anti-choice movement in his hometown.
“I regret authoring posts with photographs that were critical of Dr Roland and Anna von Marburg,” Mourik wrote in the signed apology posted on the group's Facebook page.
“I acknowledge my actions encouraged other people to engage in a ‘name and shame’ campaign substantially directed at damaging the professional and personal reputations of Dr Roland von Marburg and Anna von Marburg.
“This aggravated matters further. As a spokesperson for Rights to Privacy Albury, I had an administrative role in the conduct of the Facebook page at the relevant time.
“I should have removed the untrue and offensive comments about the von Marburgs when initially requested to do so.
“I sincerely and unreservedly apologise to Dr Roland von Marburg and Anna von Marburg for the hurt, embarrassment and damage which the posts and comments have caused to their personal or professional reputations."
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News by the von Marburgs, the couple said they "pray that this will be the end of the matter".
They added: "Anna and Dr Roland von Marburg are passionate about offering help to mothers and their unborn babies in their community... [and] sincerely hope that this case and its outcome will remind us all that we need to restore dignified debate, dignified discourse, and a love for the dignity of all human life.
"Anna and Roland thank God for the grace to persevere and to endure the hurt, embarrassment, and damage caused by the 'name and shame' campaign substantially directed at damaging their professional and personal reputations."
The von Marburgs’ barrister Will Houghton QC told BuzzFeed News he could not comment on the settlement.
Mourik did not comment but his lawyer Veronica Scott told BuzzFeed News her client was "relieved" that the case had been settled.
"The posts complained of were not authored by [Mourik], but his apology is to the von Marburgs and stands, and it reflects the position that he accepts," Scott said.
There have long been tensions between the two opposing protester camps that gather every Thursday morning outside the clinic in the NSW border city of Albury.
Liz Marmo counterprotests outside the clinic every Thursday, at a distance to respect the privacy of women entering the clinic, and is disappointed about the outcome of the defamation case.
Marmo sees her role as protecting the patients from harassment and "monitoring" the behaviour of anti-abortion demonstrators.
"Anna [von Marburg] is down there every week squirting the holy water from the water bottle and picking foetal dolls out of the basket, but I haven't seen Roland down there since 2014," she said.
NSW Labor MP Penny Sharpe expects a debate to take place next month for her bill to create "safe access zones" around clinics to protect patients and staff.
"The situation in Albury is distressing for all those seeking treatment and those that work at the clinic," Sharpe told BuzzFeed News. "The only way to cease this harassment is for NSW to enact safe access zones."
Sharpe confirmed she would introduce her bill as soon as possible after the parliamentary winter recess.
"I remain optimistic that MPs from all sides of parliament see the sense in this bill and are committed to stopping harassment and intimidation outside of reproductive health clinics."
Roland von Marburg has told BuzzFeed News he has "never erected signs or approached women outside that or any other clinic".
The original story said the von Marburgs erected signs, prayed, and approached women outside the clinic.
Gina Rushton is a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Gina Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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