CANBERRA, Australia — Dozens of high-profile Australian journalists and major media organizations were represented by lawyers in a court on Monday on charges relating to breaches of a gag order on reporting about Cardinal George Pell's convictions for sexually molesting two choirboys.
Reporting in any format accessible from Australia about the former Vatican economy chief's convictions in a Melbourne court in December was banned by a judge's suppression order that was not lifted until February.
Such suppression orders are common in the Australian and British judicial systems, and breaches can result in jail terms. But the enormous international interest in a criminal trial with global ramifications has highlighted the difficulty in enforcing such orders in the digital world.
Lawyers representing 23 journalists, producers and broadcasters as well as 13 media organizations that employ them appeared in the Victoria state Supreme Court for the first time on charges including breaching the suppression order and sub judice contempt, which is the publishing of material that could interfere with the administration of justice. Some are also charged with scandalizing the court by undermining public confidence in the judiciary as well as aiding and abetting foreign media outlets in breaching the suppression order.
Media lawyer Matthew Collins told the court that convictions could have a chilling effect on open justice in Australia. He described the prosecutions as unprecedented under Australian law.
"This is as serious as it gets in terms of convictions, fines and jail time," Collins said.
Justice John Dixon urged lawyers to consider whether all 36 people and companies would face a single trial or whether there should be 36 trials.
He ordered prosecutors to file detailed statements of claim against all those charged by May 20 and defense lawyers to file responses by June 21.
The parties must return to court for the next preliminary hearing on June 26.
Media organizations are standing by their reporting, including Australia's largest newspaper publisher, News Corp., which said in a statement that it would "vigorously defend all charges and resolutely stand by our editors and journalists."
Court documents list 32 overseas-based media organizations and websites that breached the suppression order, but none has been charged. 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.
As soon as Pell was convicted on Dec. 11 of oral rape and indecent acts involving two 13-year-old boys while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, news began to spread around the world on social media.
Collins told the court that Australian media did not name Pell or say what he had been convicted of.
Pell was described as an "Australian with a worldwide reputation convicted of an awful crime," ''a high-profile Australian known across the world ... convicted of a serious crime," ''a high profile person found guilty of a terrible crime," ''a very high profile figure convicted ... of a serious crime" and an "internationally prominent person found guilty of appalling crimes," court documents show.
Australia's largest-circulation newspaper, Melbourne's Herald Sun, owned by News Corp., had published on its front page headlines "CENSORED — the world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians," referring to residents of Victoria state.
"The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news. But trust us, it's a story you deserve to read," the newspaper added.
The newspaper's editor and published have been charged.
Melbourne's second most popular newspaper, The Age, reported that rampant use of suppression orders by Victorian courts was "almost absurd" in the digital era. Its editor and publisher are charged.
The Associated Press had a reporter in the court during Pell's trial and abided by the suppression order. The AP reported full details of the case and published photographs and video as soon as the order was lifted. Like some other international media organizations with reporters in the court, the AP has Australia-based staff who could have been as exposed to prosecution for breaching the order as the Australian media.
The suppression order was designed to prevent the December convictions from influencing the jury in a trial that was to be held in April on allegations that Pell groped two boys in a swimming pool as a young priest in the 1970s. Those charges were dropped in February, so the suppression order was lifted.
But media still face charges for sub judice contempt, even though there will be no second jury.
Breaching a suppression order carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The other charges are common law contempt offenses with no set maximum penalties.
Pell was sentenced on March 13 to six years in prison. He must serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole. He is to appeal his convictions in June.