Australian reporters charged over Pell gag order violations


CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Some of Australia’s highest-profile journalists face possible prison sentences and large media organizations could be fined after being ordered to appear in court next month for allegedly breaching a gag order on reporting about Cardinal George Pell’s convictions on charges of sexually molesting two choirboys.

Reporting in any format accessible from Australia about the former Vatican economy chief’s convictions in a Melbourne court in December was banned by a judge’s suppression order that was only lifted in February.

Such suppression orders are common in the Australian and British judicial systems, and breaches can result in jail terms. But the enormous international interest in a criminal trial with global ramifications has highlighted the difficulty in enforcing such orders in the digital world.

The Associated Press had a reporter in the court during Pell’s trial and abided by the suppression order. AP reported full details of the case and published photographs and video as soon as the order was lifted. Like some other international media organizations with reporters in the court, AP has Australia-based staff who could have been as exposed to prosecution for breaching the order as the Australian media.

The Victoria state Supreme Court confirmed on Tuesday that an unprecedented 23 journalists, producers and broadcasters as well as 13 media organizations that employ them have been summoned to appear on April 15 for a preliminary hearing on breaches of the suppression order.

Typo on Progressive New Barbie Box Mocks the Very People It's Supposed to Honor

They include Damon Johnston, editor of Australia’s largest-circulation newspaper, Herald Sun, and its owner Herald and Weekly Times. The Melbourne newspaper was criticized by Pell lawyers for running a front-page headline saying “CENSORED” following the verdict, as news of the conviction of the most senior Catholic ever charged with child sex abuse was trending on Twitter.

Top-rated Sydney radio broadcaster Ray Hadley and national morning TV program host Debra Knight are among the well-known people facing prosecution.

As soon as Pell was convicted on Dec. 11 of oral rape and indecent acts involving two 13-year-old boys while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, news began to spread around the world on social media. Some overseas-based media outlets and websites also reported the verdicts, although the sparsity of detail and factual errors suggested they had little if any help from professional journalists inside the court.

Two days after the verdict, trial judge Peter Kidd convened a court hearing with Victoria state Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd to set the prosecutions in motion.

“A number of very important people in the media are facing, if found guilty, the prospect of imprisonment and indeed substantial imprisonment,” Kidd said during the hearing, which was suppressed for two months.

Judd then wrote more than 100 letters to journalists and media organizations advising that she intended to charge them with offenses relating to reporting on the case.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. confirmed last month that it received a letter from Judd. But neither the organization nor any of its staff has since been summoned to appear in court.

The ABC said in a statement that it had responded to Judd’s letter “strongly contesting any suggestion of wrongdoing on our part.”

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment would prevent such censorship in the United States, so attempting to extradite an American for breaching an Australian suppression order would be futile.

ISIS Claims Responsibility for Deadly Bombing at Catholic Mass

Of the 36 Australia-based individuals and businesses facing charges, all but two are accused of aiding and abetting a contempt of court committed by “overseas media” that reported Pell’s convictions.

The same 34 were also charged with breaching the suppression order and sub judice contempt, the publishing of material that could interfere with the administration of justice.

The suppression order was designed to prevent the December conviction from influencing the jury in a trial that was to be held in April on allegations that Pell groped two boys in a swimming pool as a young priest in the 1970s. Those charges were dropped in February, so the suppression order was lifted.

But media still face charges for sub judice contempt.

There are 16 individuals and organizations charged with “scandalizing the court” through criticism of the suppression order.

Breaching a suppression order carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The other charges are common law contempt offenses with no prescribed maximum penalty.

Pell was sentenced on March 13 to six years in prison. He must serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole. He is to appeal his convictions in June.

The Western Journal has not reviewed this Associated Press story prior to publication. Therefore, it may contain editorial bias or may in some other way not meet our normal editorial standards. It is provided to our readers as a service from The Western Journal.

Truth and Accuracy

Submit a Correction →

We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.

The Associated Press is an independent, not-for-profit news cooperative headquartered in New York City. Their teams in over 100 countries tell the world’s stories, from breaking news to investigative reporting. They provide content and services to help engage audiences worldwide, working with companies of all types, from broadcasters to brands. Photo credit: @AP on Twitter
The Associated Press was the first private sector organization in the U.S. to operate on a national scale. Over the past 170 years, they have been first to inform the world of many of history's most important moments, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the fall of the Shah of Iran and the death of Pope John Paul.

Today, they operate in 263 locations in more than 100 countries relaying breaking news, covering war and conflict and producing enterprise reports that tell the world's stories.
New York City