When Cardinal George Pell was convicted of the historical child sexual abuse of two choirboys in 2018, Australian media were banned from reporting the facts of the case due to a suppression order meant to keep the alleged sins of the Vatican no. 3 quiet in anticipation of a second sex abuse trial.
But several outlets challenged the order after The Daily Beast and Washington Post printed the facts of the case—including Pell’s name. (The Daily Beast geoblocked the story from all Australian I.P. addresses when it was published in order to not violate the suppression order.) Now, seven months after Pell’s conviction was overturned by a high court, 18 Australian journalists, editors, and broadcasters, and 12 Australian media organizations are on trial for contempt for allegedly defying the order and running the story in what is set to be the biggest showdown of press freedom in the digital age Australia has ever seen.
The U.S.-based publications, including The Daily Beast, which were outside the Australian court jurisdiction, are not on trial, but they were mentioned in the lead prosecutor’s opening remarks on Monday at the Victoria Supreme Court.
Chief prosecutor Lisa De Ferrari said The Daily Beast and the Washington Post were the first to report Pell’s name and conviction, which gave the Australian media an opportunity to point to those articles in “willing direct defiance” of the suppression order.
She told the judge that the Australian publications breached the suppression order by effectively inviting their readers to search online for the American news reports.
Unlike suppression orders that are common in Australia and the United Kingdom in high-profile criminal cases, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects American journalists from prosecution for reporting facts.
Ferrari showed several examples of the alleged breaches, which carry heavy fines and up to five years in jail if any of the 30 plaintiffs are found guilty. The Herald Sun, for example, ran a white headline “Censored” on a black front page to protest the gag order. “The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians,” the story stated. “But trust us, it’s a story you deserve to read.”
On the Herald Sun’s online edition, they went further, pointing to The Daily Beast story, and stating, “A high-profile Australian known across the world has been convicted of a serious crime but the details cannot be published in any media in the country... The story we can’t report.”
Other publications named in the criminal contempt suit include The Age, whose former editor Alex Lavelle has personally been charged for a report that merely referred to “a high-profile figure” who had been “convicted of a serious crime.”
The Sydney Morning Herald is also named for similar reporting.
All 30 plaintiffs deny the charges, and the court will have to prove that they knowingly defied the suppression order. In cases where the outlets only published online, they can argue that global distribution exempts them from the order. In the cases where print newspapers only alluded to Pell as a “top cardinal” or “important figure,” lawyers will argue that they did not defy the order.
Contempt of court penalties in Victoria state include five years jail time for individuals and a minimum of $69,000 with no maximum fine. Companies instead face minimum fines of around $400,00 with no cap.
Pell returned to Rome in late September amid a Vatican finance scandal. He has been welcomed by Pope Francis, who he met with privately.
The trial is being held in a virtual courtroom with no jury due to COVID-19 restrictions and is expected to last between two and three weeks.