The defence minister, Linda Reynolds, has apologised to Brittany Higgins for calling her “a lying cow” and agreed to pay legal costs and make a donation to a sexual assault charity as part of a confidential settlement with her former staffer.
Reynolds, who remains on sick leave, was reported to have described Higgins as “a lying cow” in her office on 15 February this year, the day Higgins went public with her claim she had been raped in the minister’s office by another staffer in early 2019.
Publicly, the minister had said her only concern remained Higgins’ wellbeing.
In a statement on social media on Friday, Reynolds said she had publicly apologised to Higgins about the comment on 5 March. The minister said she “did not mean it in the sense it may have been understood”.
“Given that the comment was made public, which I never intended, I also want to retract it and unreservedly apologise to Brittany Higgins and acknowledge the hurt and distress it caused to her.”
Reynolds previously said she had made the comment in response to claims Higgins did not feel supported after coming forward with her allegation – not in response to the claim of having been raped.
In a statement released by her lawyers, Company Giles, Higgins said she accepted the apology and wanted any extra money received as part of the settlement to go to a sexual assault organisation that specialised in supporting victims.
“I am pleased that the minister has now withdrawn her comments and I accept her apology to me,” Higgins said.
“This has been an immensely challenging period to me and I wish to reiterate that the only reason I have chosen to come forward is to help others.
“Finally, any monies I have received from the minister, as part of this settlement of my claim against her over and above my legal costs, will be paid in full to an organisation that provides counselling and support for survivors of sexual assault and abuse in the Canberra area. These funds will assist them in this important work.”
Reynolds’ comment was made in her open-plan office and was overheard by staff, including those on secondment from the defence department, some of whom raised concerns about the remark.
Last week, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Reynolds “regretted” the comment made in a “private” setting while under pressure during a stressful week. He said the minister was only human.
“She apologised to the staff about making what were inappropriate comments, long before it became public,” he said. “I would just simply say to people, you know, it’s been a very traumatic several weeks for many people – people directly involved by these events, who are our primary concern. But, equally, there have been others who have been drawn into this. They’re human beings. They say things that sometimes they deeply regret.
“I would simply ask you, given the comment was made in a private place, that you offer the same generosity to how you’d perceive something you might have said, and perhaps apply the same standard to Linda Reynolds, who at the time was under significant stress. She deeply regrets it.”
Morrison acknowledged the comment was “offensive” and should never have been made. “I don’t condone [it],” he said.
Reynolds remains on sick leave and will miss the coming parliamentary sitting and Senate estimates hearings.