Australian media face trial over Pell sex abuse case reporting

FILE PHOTO: Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell is surrounded by Australian police as he leaves the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Australia, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Dadswell

Dozens of Australian journalists and publishers are set to face trial in November over coverage of ex-Vatican treasurer George Pell’s child sex abuse conviction in 2018, facing charges that they breached an Australia-wide gag order in the case.

Prosecutors in the state of Victoria said 19 journalists and 21 publications aided and abetted contempt of court by overseas media and breached suppression orders imposed by the trial judge.

Gag order by court

Pell was found guilty in December 2018 of sexually assaulting two choirboys, but reporting on the case was gagged so as not to prejudice another trial on separate charges.

After the verdict, some Australian media said an unnamed high-profile person had been convicted of a serious crime that could not be reported, while some overseas media named Pell and the charges.

The second case was later dropped, and the suppression order was lifted in February 2019. Pell’s conviction was overturned by Australia’s High Court in April.

Media charged

Supreme Court of Victoria Justice John Dixon on Tuesday proposed beginning the trial on Nov. 9, although the prosecution and defence have yet to agree on all the issues at stake and whether to go through a single trial or several.

The prosecution is seeking one trial, which would be held before a judge, but the lawyer representing the charged media organisations and reporters said there appeared to be 13 separate controversies.

Media anxious to resolve

“The respondents are very anxious for these matters to be resolved, finally, that has been hanging over their heads for far too long, but we do think it’s a question of proceeding with some caution,” Matthew Collins, the lawyer for the media organisations, told the court.

Those facing contempt charges include journalists from Nine Entertainment Co’s newspapers The Age and the Australian Financial Review and several News Corp publications.

Breaches of suppression orders can be punished with jail for up to five years and fines of nearly A$100,000 ($66,000) for individuals and nearly A$500,000 for companies.

The next hearing in the case is set for July.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; editing by Richard Pullin)