Prosecutor in Australia threatens journalists over Pell gag order

State prosecutor has sent letters to more than 100 media organisations and journalists over suppression-order breach.

    Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne's County Court in Australia on Tuesday [Andy Brownbill/AP]
    Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne's County Court in Australia on Tuesday [Andy Brownbill/AP]

    An Australian state prosecutor has sent letters threatening to charge media organisations and dozens of journalists with breaching a gag order that banned reporting on Cardinal George Pell's convictions on child sexual abuse, lawyers said.

    Reporting in any format accessible from Australia details of 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 on Tuesday when a second trial was dropped.

    Victoria state Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Kerri Judd has written more than 100 letters to journalists and media organisations advising that she intends to charge them with offences related to reporting on the Pell case, said Jason Bosland, the deputy director of the Center for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne University. Bosland, a leading expert on suppression orders, said he was told the number by media sources.

    Suppression orders are common in the Australian and British judicial systems, and breaches can result in jail terms.

    A jury unanimously found Pell guilty on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault against two boys at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in late 1996.

    Pell is the most senior Catholic cleric ever to have been found guilty of child sexual abuse and his conviction follows a year of worldwide revelations of abuse and cover-up. He is being held in custody and is due to be sentenced on March 13.

    A lawyer involved in several cases, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, confirmed more than 100 letters were sent. Some individuals received two or three letters, so the number of media employees facing charges could be fewer than 100, the lawyer added.

    He and Bosland said the charges were aiding and abetting breaches of the suppression order by international media, breaching the suppression order, scandalising the court and sub-judice contempt.

    Anthony Loncaric, a spokesman for the Office of Public Prosecutions, declined to comment.

    'CENSORED'

    Two of Australia's largest media organisations, Nine and Australian Broadcasting Corp, confirmed they had received letters. News Corp, another major media organisation that was criticised by a Pell lawyer for running a headline saying "CENSORED" following the conviction, declined to comment.

    Nine spokeswoman Miranda Ward said the company had received a letter accusing it of breaching the suppression order.

    Australian Broadcasting Corp confirmed the public broadcaster had received a letter from Judd. ABC declined to provide details of the content of the letter, except to say it was related to its coverage of the Pell trial.

    "We stand by all of our coverage and our actions in this matter," the broadcaster said in a statement. "We have responded to the DPP strongly contesting any suggestion of wrongdoing on our part."

    Boland said the number of journalists facing prosecution was unprecedented.

    "I've never seen a situation where such a huge number of people have been shown show-cause notices," Boland said. "Normally it's sent to one or two media outlets. But this is an extraordinary approach in extraordinary circumstances."

    Boland said he had never heard of a charge of aiding and abetting being used to enforce a suppression order. He said it was a novel approach to target media outside the court's jurisdiction.

    "What they're doing is instead of going after the international organisations themselves - because obviously, they can't - they are potentially going after the local people within the jurisdiction that they think have aided and abetted these international breaches," Boland said.

    The US Constitution's First Amendment would prevent such orders in the US, so attempting to extradite an American for breaching an Australian suppression order would be futile.

    Risk of jail

    As soon as Pell was convicted on December 11 for indecent acts involving the two boys, news began to spread around the world through social media. Some international media outlets and websites also began reporting the verdicts, although the sparsity of detail and factual errors suggested they had little if any help from professional journalists inside the court.

    Melbourne's The Age newspaper reported a "high-profile figure" had been convicted of a serious crime and was among the publications put on notice by the state's chief prosecutor.

    The Age, which is owned by Nine, reported that 30 journalists employed by Nine had been told in letters in February to show cause why they should not be charged.

    Authorities' responses to breaches of the suppression order - like the order itself - had been banned from publication until the order was lifted on Tuesday.

    Two days after the verdict, trial judge Peter Kidd convened a court hearing with 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. "It may well be that many significant members of the media community are in that potential position."

    Breaching a suppression order carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

    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 he groped two boys in a swimming pool as a young priest in the 1970s.

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    SOURCE: AP news agency