An Australian state prosecutor has sent letters threatening to charge media organizations and dozens of journalists with breaching a gag order that banned reporting of Cardinal George Pell's convictions on charges of sexually molesting two choirboys, lawyers said Thursday.
Reporting in any format accessible from Australia of 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 this week.
Such suppression orders are commonplace 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.
Victoria state Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd has written more than 100 letters to journalists and media organizations advising that she intends to charge them with offenses relating 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.
A lawyer involved in several cases, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized 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 said.
He and Bosland said the charges were aiding and abetting breaches of the suppression order by international media, breaching the suppression order, scandalizing the court and sub judice contempt.
Anthony Loncaric, a spokesman for the Office of Public Prosecutions, declined to comment.
Two of Australia's largest media organizations, Nine and Australian Broadcasting Corp., confirmed that they had received letters. News Corp., another major media organization that was criticized 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. The ABC declined to provide details of the content of the letter, except to say it was related to ABC's 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 organizations 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 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 for 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. Some overseas-based 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 Herald Sun newspaper ran a black front page under the white headline "CENSORED" as the story was trending on Twitter.
Melbourne's The Age newspaper reported a "high-profile figure" had been convicted of a serious crime. Both mastheads have been 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. Those charges were dropped on Tuesday, so the suppression order was lifted.
But reporters still face the potential of charges for sub judice contempt, which alleges the reporting of the first trial interfered with the administration of justice in the second trial.
Scandalizing the court is a form of contempt and aiding and abetting a breach of the suppression order recognizes that helping the commission of a crime is itself a crime.
Contempt of court is a common law offense with no prescribed maximum penalty.
Associated Press reporter Kristen Gelineau contributed to this report.