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Australian Media on Trial Over Cardinal Contempt Charges  

FILE - Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves at the end of a meeting with the victims of sex abuse, at the Quirinale hotel in Rome, Italy, March 3, 2016.

A civil trial has started Monday for 30 media companies and journalists accused of contempt of court over the reporting of Australian Cardinal George Pell's conviction on sexual abuse charges. The cardinal, a former adviser to Pope Francis, was released from prison in April after his guilty verdict for assaulting two choirboys in the 1990s was overturned following a successful appeal to the High Court.

In December 2018, an Australian judge in the state of Victoria issued an order preventing the media from reporting the guilty verdict a jury had reached against Cardinal George Pell.

The formal papal adviser was due to face a second trial on separate charges in March 2019. The suppression order was put in place to ensure that Cardinal Pell would receive a fair trial that would not be prejudiced by the previous guilty verdict.

Some of Australia’s biggest media companies are accused of breaching that official directive by reporting that a “high-profile” person had been convicted of serious charges. Numerous publications referred to the verdict, without naming Cardinal Pell. The Herald Sun newspaper published a black front page with the word CENSORED in large white letters.

Some international news outlets, which operate outside the Victorian County Court's jurisdiction, did report that the cardinal had been found guilty in December 2018.

The suppression order was lifted, and the media was able to freely report Pell’s convictions in February 2019 when prosecutors abandoned the second trial.

Matt Collins is a senior barrister who specializes in media law. He has previously told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that it is a complex case.

“These are very difficult balancing exercises," he said. "The court has to take into account on the one hand a pretty fundamental principle in our democracy, which is that courts should be open, and that people have a right to know what happens in our courts; and on the other hand, the importance of maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

Cardinal Pell was the most senior Catholic figure ever jailed for child abuse, but the conviction and a six-year prison term were overturned in April.

The Vatican ex-treasurer, who is 79 and currently in Rome, had always denied the allegations.

The contempt of court civil trial is being heard remotely because of COVID-19 restrictions. It is expected to run for three weeks. The media companies are contesting 100 charges. Their lawyers have said previously that if they are found guilty it could have a "chilling effect" on open justice in Australia.