The latest episode in the Cardinal George Pell saga has ended abruptly, after some of Australia’s largest media outlets pleaded guilty to breaching a 2018 suppression order while covering Pell’s now quashed child sex abuse conviction.
Victoria’s public prosecutor initially charged 12 media outlets (including News Corp and Fairfax Media, which is now Nine Entertainment), as well as 15 journalists and editors with breaching the suppression order. The order banned Australian media from reporting on Pell’s 2018 trial until 2019.
However, under a plea deal on Monday, the prosecutor agreed to drop a total of 58 charges against the journalists, including the charge of sub judice contempt, which carries a potential jail sentence.
Instead, the media companies themselves pleaded guilty to 21 charges and can expect fines of up to $500,000 apiece.
A plea hearing will be heard next week to determine the size of the penalty.
Pell’s conviction was overturned last year in a spectacular unanimous decision by the seven justices of the High Court of Australia, who found the Victorian Supreme Court and Court of Appeal did not entertain enough “doubt” on the veracity of 23 witness testimonies.
Pell spent 13 months behind bars and has since returned to Rome. He maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal.
The publications which have pleaded guilty include the Herald Sun, The Australian Financial Review, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, The Advertiser in Adelaide, the Geelong Advertiser and The Courier Mail in Brisbane.
Other media companies include Sydney radio station 2GB, Channel Nine (which featured coverage in its Today show), Mamamia, and Business Insider.
A Nine Entertainment spokesperson said the decision to enter a guilty plea was “important to protect our individual people who were simply going about their jobs”.
“It is a regrettable but necessary decision that media companies enter guilty pleas, to avoid the threat of criminal convictions and jail sentences that the Victorian Department of Public Prosecutions pursued …”
Dr. Augusto Zimmermann, head of law at Sheridan College in Perth, said the media had “no choice” but to plead guilty.
“This admission was a wise legal manoeuvre because, in exchange, prosecutors have dropped all other charges, including against individual journalists,” the former member of the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia told The Epoch Times.
However, Zimmermann was critical of Pell’s media coverage, saying before his first trial in 2018, Pell had become the “most loathed person in the nation.”
“There is a growing rise in Australia of anti-religious, especially anti-Catholic sentiment … Catholic priests are becoming the targets of a vilification campaign that may sometimes involve unsubstantiated accusations and expensive court proceedings,” he said.
“Cardinal Pell’s wrongful conviction, indeed, raises some reasonable doubts concerning the possibility that innocent individuals might be convicted but lack the resources and necessary influence to successfully appeal to the High Court,” he said.
Suppression Orders in the Digital Age
The suppression order was handed down in December 2018 following Pell’s conviction by the Victorian Supreme Court for sexually abusing two choirboys at St. Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.
The order was designed to prevent further media coverage from prejudicing the outcome of an impending second trial for Pell in February 2019. This trial was later dropped.
However, Pell’s international prominence as the third-highest ranking Vatican member meant media outlets worldwide were running stories on the trial’s outcome, outside the ambit of the suppression order.
Former editor of The Age newspaper Alex Lavelle told the Court that the newspaper began exploring ways to report on the story without breaking the law.
The Australian media subsequently began publishing news stories criticising the secrecy surrounding the trial, while avoiding mentioning Pell’s name directly.
Some front-page headlines included: “Nation’s biggest story: The story we can’t report.”
“Secret scandal. It’s Australia’s biggest story. A high-profile person found guilty of a terrible crime. The world is reading about it but we can’t tell you a word.”
Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions Lisa De Ferrari SC argued that those headlines were still prejudicial to the proceedings.
The recent case began last year with 205 contempt of court charges against a combined 30 media companies and journalists.
The number of charges was whittled down to 79 when prosecutors withdrew some charges, while others were struck out.