CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian media companies admitted in court Monday they breached a gag order in publishing references to Cardinal George Pell’s since-overturned convictions in 2018 for child sexual abuse. The plea agreement avoids any journalist being sent to prison.
Dozens of companies, reporters and editors were charged with contempt and breaching a suppression order over their coverage of the convictions, which were banned from publication in Australia until February 2019.
Such suppression orders are common in the Australian and British judicial systems. But the enormous international interest in an Australian criminal trial with global ramifications highlighted the difficulty in enforcing such orders in the digital age.
No foreign news organization has been charged with breaching the suppression order. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment would prevent such censorship in the United States, so attempting to extradite an American for breaching an Australian suppression order would be futile.
The newspaper said it was prevented from “publishing details of this significant news.”
Prosecutor Lisa Di Ferrari told Justice John Dixon, who had been hearing the trial without a jury, that given the acceptance of responsibility by the corporations, it was in the public interest to withdraw the remaining charges.
The court was told the media companies would pay the legal costs of the prosecution. A pre-sentence hearing will begin next week on Feb. 10.
It is not clear what financial penalties the businesses could face. But several high-profile journalists had faced the prospect of serving prison sentences if they had been convicted.
The details of Pell’s first trial were suppressed to prevent prejudicing jurors in a second child abuse trial that Pell was to face three months later.
That second trial was canceled due to a lack of evidence so the suppression order was lifted.
Because there was no second trial, no one is alleging that breaching the suppression order caused any harm. But lawyers agree that an absence of harm will not be a factor in determining punishment.