More than 30 journalists and publishers are due to face court Monday over their coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s trial for child sex abuse. Prosecutors are seeking fines and jail terms over accusations that news outlets breached strict suppression orders in the case. Experts say the reporting ban raises issues about the freedom of the press.
Cardinal George Pell, who was a key adviser to Pope Francis in the Vatican, was to have faced two separate child sex abuse trials.
A judge said details of the first case had to remain secret because of fears that media coverage would influence the jury in the second trial. A sweeping suppression order, common in parts of Australia, was imposed.
When a verdict in the initial trial was delivered last December, it was covered by international news websites, including the Washington Post. Several Australian agencies are accused of breaching the ban by reporting cryptically that an unnamed high-profile person had been found guilty of a serious crime that could not be made public.
Experts say Australian reporting restrictions were futile in the global digital age.
Associate Professor Jason Bosland is from Melbourne University Law School.
“An outlet, for example, like the Washington Post, I mean, they can be sent, you know, as many notices as the prosecution likes, but they are outside the jurisdiction and they are in a jurisdiction where the right to report the courts is protected by the First Amendment. Under the First Amendment a suppression order would be seen as completely repugnant to the freedom of the press,” Bosland said.
Some of Australia’s biggest media companies are among those facing contempt allegations. They include Nine Entertainment Co, the Age, the Australian Financial Review, Macquarie Media and several News Corp publications. Most intend to ‘vigorously’ fight the charges.
Cardinal Pell was jailed in March for six years after being convicted of sexually abusing two boys.
The former Vatican treasurer is the most senior Catholic figure ever to be found guilty of sexual offenses against children.
Pell abused the 13-year-old choir boys in a Melbourne cathedral in 1996. He is appealing against his conviction.
The second trial was subsequently abandoned by prosecutors.