By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Scooped. It’s a reporter’s nightmare.
After I spent weeks covering the trial of Cardinal George Pell in a small court room in Melbourne, a New York-based reporter for a U.S. media organisation was first with the news that one of the most senior officials in the Vatican had been convicted of sexually assaulting two choir boys.
I had to sit on the story for another 11 weeks.
Media had been barred by the court from publishing anything in Australia about Pell’s prosecution on five sexual offences committed against the two boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne 22 years ago.
Pell was found guilty in December, a verdict announced in court, but the gag order was lifted only on Feb 26. Reuters published news of the conviction only after the gag order was lifted.
Reuters, the world’s largest international multimedia news organisation, adheres strictly to the local laws in the almost 200 locations where it operates. Thomson Reuters, our parent company, has a large presence in Australia, including more than 20 journalists, and news and other services are widely distributed.
The suppression order had applied throughout Australia “and on any website or other electronic or broadcast format accessible within Australia”. Those failing to comply with suppression orders can be jailed for up to five years as well as fined nearly A$100,000 (£53,703). A company can face a fine of nearly A$500,000.
At the same time, however, I am bound by the Reuters Trust Principles, which commit all journalists in the company to supply “unbiased and reliable news”. https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en/about-us/trust-principles.html
Normally, when the verdict was announced, I would have sent a series of stories to my editors, urgently reporting the conviction for our clients and readers around the world followed by several updates through the day.
But the gag order precluded that.
Unlike Reuters, several overseas media institutions published the verdict as soon as it was announced. Soon it was widely available online, including in Australia.
The Daily Beast broke news of the conviction out of New York the day Pell was found guilty. The Washington Post and Catholic news agencies offshore followed suit.
The New York Times published the verdict in U.S. print editions but not online.
U.S. media that ran the verdict but did not block coverage to Australia were technically in breach of the suppression order, but there was no way the order could be enforced against them, legal experts said.
“Australia would have to extradite someone, say from the Washington Post. There’s no way that that could happen under U.S. law, because the U.S. publisher would be facing charges that are totally repugnant to the first amendment,” said Jason Bosland, deputy director of the Centre for Media and Communications Law at the University of Melbourne.
The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of the press.
“While we always consider guidelines given by courts and governments, we must ultimately use our judgment and exercise our right to publish such consequential news,” Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
The Washington Post and the Daily Beast did not respond to questions on whether they had received any legal notice from the Australian court.
County Court of Victoria Chief Judge Peter Kidd said he imposed the gag order to avoid tainting the jury in this trial and another case he had set for March 2019, where Pell faced charges on other child sex offences from the 1970s. The charges in the second case were dropped last week, leading to the end of the gag order.
In Australia, some newspapers ran headlines, including one that said “CENSORED”, and articles referring to a trial where an unnamed high-profile person was convicted of a serious crime that could not be reported.
For 10 weeks, I and about eight other reporters spent four and a half days a week covering the Pell trials – a mistrial and then a subsequent trial. The jury was given Friday afternoons off, so we were free too.
Pell would wait during breaks in a small interview room next to the courtroom, with two companions most of the time.
When the jury went in to deliberate on the verdict, it was nerve-jangling. We hovered in the corridor outside the court room the whole time, and no one left the court house except when we saw lunch being taken in to the jurors.
The trial’s highlight was the testimony of the one surviving victim. But only the jury, the judge, the lawyers and Pell heard his testimony from a remote site. It lasted for more than two days, including a cross-examination by Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter.
Pell did not take the stand at any time.
The rest of us in court heard a long line of church officials and ex-choristers being interrogated about Sunday mass protocols, choir processions, wine bottles, and the Cathedral layout. All of them said they had never seen nor heard of anything untoward at the cathedral in late 1996 or early 1997.
In those circumstances, it was easy to forget the gravity of the case and not having heard the victim, the guilty verdict came as a surprise.
Then, after the drama over the gag order, the judge permitted live television coverage of the sentencing on Wednesday. Only a single camera was used, which was trained on the judge and the broadcast was cut immediately after the sentence was delivered.
Pell was sentenced to six years in prison.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)