Two Months Later, News Orgs Are Finally 'Allowed' To Report On Top Vatican Official's Child Molestation Conviction

from the suppressed-press dept

Back in December, we wrote about the insane attack on free speech perpetrated by the Australian court system, barring anyone from reporting on the fact that “third most powerful person in the Vatican,” its CFO, George Pell, had been convicted of molesting choir boys in Australia in the 1990s. Only a very small number of news sites reported on this at all, out of fear of the Australian government going after them. Even the NY Times (of all sites) only published the story in its physical paper, and not online, to avoid the possibility that readers down under might see the story. We even got some pushback from some people for publishing the story, with them saying it was necessary to make sure Pell’s second trial on similar charges was “fair.” Of course, we’ve handled these issues differently in the US for decades, in a way that seems to work just fine: the press is free to report, but jurors are restricted from researching or reading about the case. That system inconveniences the fewest number of people, retains a system of fairness, and does not stifle a free and open press.

Either way, on Tuesday, the Australian court system finally lifted the gag order allowing official reports to finally be written. As for why the gag order was finally lifted? Apparently that all important second trial? It’s been called off.

The Washington Post story above has many more details about the case that were kept secret, including the fairly graphic and horrifying details of what Pell did to some choir boys in the 1990s. It remains an insult to the work of the media that so many were forced to stay silent over these details. I recognize that not everywhere else has a First Amendment like the US does, and that protections for freedom of expression and freedom of the press vary from country to country, but Australia’s press gag here is notable for keeping such important details secret and for scaring the media in other nations, including the US, from publishing their stories as well.

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Comments on “Two Months Later, News Orgs Are Finally 'Allowed' To Report On Top Vatican Official's Child Molestation Conviction”

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PapaFox (profile) says:

Omitted facts

The reason his honour Judge Peter Kidd issued the suppression order was simple. George Pell was facing another separate trial for child sexual abuse. Widely publicizing his conviction the first trial would have almost certainly swayed the jury in the second trial. When the prosecutor withdrew the charges in this second case, the judge lifted the order. Judging by the media frenzy that the lifting of the suppression order allowed, had the second trial been held, the jury would not have needed to hear any evidence, they simply would have taken George Pell out of the court and strung him up.

Suppression orders are far from perfect solutions to these sort of prejudicial events, the courts need to do something to attempt to provide some semblance of a fair trial.

You need to update the story to mention the second trial and the removal of the suppression order once the second set of charges were withdrawn.

Bo Jest says:

Re: Latest Zombie: "PapaFox", 5 comments in nearly 8 years!

An 18 month gap; a 5 year gap; another 18 month gap; begun May 20th, 2010.

I admit this apparent zombie is highly unusual for being SLIGHTLY critical. But after 18 months it popped up on minor piece, one of only 3 comments after 2 hours, and then Masnick hisself commented at it to sort of make him look good, which looks just too convenient, so I call it astro-turfing.

Anyhoo, whatever deem this phenom, even if ignore, it’s ODD and unique to Techdirt. One wonders why Masnick isn’t vitally interested in this phenom, "connect with fans" and all, at least show some vague interest in getting people engaged, but no, after I’ve pointed up DOZENS now over near two years, never an official remark. Appears as though the site knows that’d be useless. So again, what you DON’T see here at Techdirt is always the most informing part.

[As in the movie "Beau Geste", Techdirt props up dead soldiers to pretend still a fighting force.]

Agammamon says:

Re: Omitted facts

Widely publicizing his conviction the first trial would have almost certainly swayed the jury in the second trial.

Not only are those facts not omitted, that rationale is simply false. The US has never had any trouble with news coverage ‘swaying’ potential jurors. Certainly not to the point that a national ban would ever be necessary.

Add in to the fact that a defendant being found guilty on another set of related charges is directly related to the quality of his testimony.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Omitted facts

The US has never had any trouble with news coverage ‘swaying’ potential jurors.

This is a signficant overstatement—to the point of simple falsity. The US has had trouble with this.

Certainly not to the point that a national ban would ever be necessary.

This second sentence, while truly qualifying the context in which you’re making the preceding sentence, does not manage to completely recover your ‘overstatement’.

The US has indeed had trouble with news coverage swaying potential jurors. So much trouble, in the past, that the US Supreme Court has set aside a jury verdict, and remanded for a new trial. That’s trouble.

See the 1961 case of Irvin v Dowd for details.

[W]ith remarkable understatement, the headlines reported that “impartial jurors are hard to find.”

And from the trial record itself:

An examination of the 2,783-page voir dire record shows that 370 prospective jurors or almost 90% of those examined on the point (10 members of the panel were never asked whether or not they had any opinion) entertained some opinion as to guilt—ranging in intensity from mere suspicion to absolute certainty.

That’s trouble. Trouble enough to set aside a verdict.

Irvin is cited in both the well-known 1966 case of Sheppard v Maxwell, as well as from the 1976 case of Nebraska Press v Stuart.

Sheppard is well-known not only for the media-circus surrounding the trial, but also well-known for the Supreme Court’s suggestions to trial courts on managing the media.

Nebraska Press, of course, would be support for the idea that a “national ban”, as you phrased it in your second, contextually-qualifying sentence — a “national ban” on press coverage of a trial would simply be unconstitutional. But the report of that case also contains the historical observation:

The trial of Aaron Burr in 1807 presented Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, presiding as a trial judge, with acute problems in selecting an unbiased jury.

Few people in the area of Virginia from which jurors were drawn had not formed some opinions concerning Mr. Burr or the case, from newspaper accounts and heightened discussion both private and public.

Anonymous Coward says:

Front Page Google News Now

Journalists Who Reported On A Cardinal’s Sex Abuse Verdict Could Face Jail Time”, by Sasha Ingber, NPR, Feb 28, 2019

[N]ow, more than 100 notices have been sent to journalists, bloggers and media organizations… Kerri Judd, director of public prosecutions in Victoria state, notified recipients of an intent to charge them with offenses for their coverage of the trial.

[Jason] Bosland [, the deputy director of the Center for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne University] described the charges as not just violating the suppression order but aiding and abetting gag order breaches in international media, scandalizing the court, and sub judice contempt.

… Bosland said he was not sure whether publications outside Australia had received notices.…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Front Page Google News Now

Some possible additional context for the “notices” or “letters” is perhaps provided in a Transcript of Proceedings (Dec 13, 2018) in the County Court of Victoria.

Ms Judd is evidently appearing on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

MS JUDD: All sorts of issues, so as say they need to be thought through a little bit carefully. All I can do today is write a letter – this hasn’t been sent yet but I can give you an indication of the type, the draft letter that I’m proposing.

HIS HONOUR: Yes, thank you. Just let me read it, Madam Director. What is the maximum penalty for a breach of the Open Court Act offence. I think it’s – – –

(marked p.3 / p.4 in PDF)


(Linked from the Guardian, which in turn is via NPR’s story linked above.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Front Page Google News Now

Here’s The Letter Sent To Journos Accused Of Breaking Pell Suppression Order”, PedestrianTV, Feb 28, 2019 (archive copy)

The story states that the following letter was sent in early February and was “signed by Kerri Judd, Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions”:

As you will be aware, George Pell is facing prosecution for historical child sex offences in the County Court, and a suppression order was made in relation to this matter on 25 June 2018.

I have considered the above publication, and it is my opinion that the above publication breaches the suppression order, has a definite and real tendency to interfere with the administration of justice and therefore constitutes sub judice contempt. is contemptuous by reason of it scandalising the Court. and aided and abetted contempts by overseas media.

At present, I intend to institute proceedings for contempt against you. However, I have determined to allow you the opportunity to respond and to draw any relevant matters to my attention, if you wish to do so, before I institute proceedings.

(Blockquoted in source.)


(H/T Subel Bhandari /

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Front Page Google News Now

In a Feb 25, 2019 story at the Guardian, “Up to 100 journalists accused of breaking Pell suppression order face possible jail terms”, Amanda Meade reports:

Judd asked some recipients of the letter to reply by 15 February as to why they should not be charged with contempt of court.

Later in that story, though, she quotes a lawyer, Justin Quill, who represent “all the Nine outlets, News Corp and smaller websites like Mamamia”, and who in writing to the DPP concerning the letters received by his clients, characterized those received letters as “ ‘virtually identical’ ”.

It is unclear from the Guardian story whether other letters, including those that may have asked some recipients to reply by 15 February, were all “ ‘virtually identical’ ”, and are all fairly represented by the text of the one letter published by PedestrianTV.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Front Page Google News Now

Oh would I have laughed so very had had they been stupid enough to send one of those to TD…

In a story appearing in both The Age and also the Sidney Morning Herald, “Dozens of Australian journalists threatened with contempt of court over Pell stories” (Feb 26, 2019), Clay Lucas reports:

The Office of Public Prosecutions said it would not respond to questions at this stage.

It could be pressing luck to ask the Director / Office of Public Prosecutions for a copy of the letter? Maybe asking for an official copy would be a job for someone all professional like maybe Popehat.

Anyhow, if I they had sent Techdirt a copy… … well, then would not have needed to google for a published copy.


(That Lucas story, btw, partially quotes a couple sentences from a letter they have. Also, the version in The Age happens to be linked from within one of the Guardian stories linked here earlier.)

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m Australian and still not agreeing with you. As called out before, this wasn’t to protect someone’s reputation; it was to an attempt to preserve impartiality for the second trial.

Jurors don’t know in advance what case(s) they will be assigned to. In the two months between the first trial and the second trial, it’s likely – perhaps even probable – potential jurors may have seen or heard about the first case and formed their own pre-conceived notions. Most people don’t live in a cave.

Perhaps the court should (and could) have looked for jurors that didn’t have any exposure to the first trial. Screening is supposed to filter out such people. But in such a high-profile case, finding jurors may have been very difficult. Given the nature of the accusations, the last thing anyone would want is a mistrial!

It’s also important to note the gag order was lifted as soon as practical. This wasn’t a scenario where the gag order was indefinite and it took a legal challenge 5 years later for it to be lifted.

And frankly, given the US’s pre-emptive gag orders, FISC, NSLs and other facets of the US justice system (as you report on frequently), I don’t think you’re in a position to claim the US system "works just fine". US courts are just as capable of gagging things arbitrarily. That companies in other nations were scared speaks more for the stupidity of the company than of the gag order.

R2_v2.0 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

to preserve impartiality

This is always such a terrible argument. That a juror would have such an infantile intellect that, upon hearing of a prior conviction, they couldn’t possibly entertain the notion that the accused might be innocent.

You’ve seen the exact opposite play out in the last few days with two(!) former Prime Ministers basically arguing that the jury was wrong.

Reasonable people can make reasonable decisions even knowing about a prior conviction and bigots will be bigots regardless of what they know.

John Roddy (profile) says:


it was to an attempt to preserve impartiality for the second trial.

And it was a very bad attempt, as has been pointed out and explained in detail. It was also a very weak excuse, as has also been pointed out in detail.

Jurors don’t know . . .

Newsflash: juries are complicated. And there are a LOT of procedures in place to deal with that. An overreaching gag order is completely redundant.

It’s also important to note the gag order was lifted as soon as practical.

It is more important to note that the gag order was unnecessary in the first place. The court deserves exactly zero praise for lifting the order, as they shouldn’t have issued it to begin with.

And frankly, given the US’s pre-emptive gag orders, FISC, NSLs and other facets of the US justice system (as you report on frequently), I don’t think you’re in a position to claim the US system "works just fine".

Nobody is claiming that the US system "works just fine." But do notice how courts have been a lot more open to challenges of those gag orders in recent years. The Supreme Court was very clear in stating that they’re only allowable in extreme situations. Anything less than imminent death and destruction, and the order absolutely violates the first amendment.

US courts are just as capable of gagging things arbitrarily.

Yes, and the appeals court is usually quite vocal when they reverse that order. Or, more commonly, when the judge realizes they screwed up and rescinds it before it actually gets them in trouble.

That companies in other nations were scared speaks more for the stupidity of the company than of the gag order.

This is one of the most frightening sentences I have seen in a long time. Are you familiar with a "chilling effect?" The basics of censorship? And you’re OK with your own country being the one to enact it? All just to hypothetically prevent a few hypothetical jurors from possibly hearing anything relating to a priest who was already convicted of molesting kids?

Sort out your priorities.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The bloke who walked in and shot up that doughnut shop that one time where hostages were killed in crossfire… did the media not cover it live on tv? How could he get an impartial trial?

People were scared by the ‘media’ people claiming this wasn’t a fair trial but persecution of Catholics… of a man who told the press that Abortion is a worse sin than molesting children.

FISA & NSL’s are used in cases where the information of the investigation might alert the target of the investigation. While they are misused sometimes, they do not hide earlier convictions made in court… because court proceedings (except in national security interests) are open.

R. Kelly was tried & not convicted in other cases against him, but people can still mention he was taken to trial over allegations that mirror his current charges. We have faith that prospective jurors will answer truthfully when asked if that coverage lead them to make a decision before hearing any evidence. His defense team will scream he can’t get a fair trial in the courts but they will find a jury who will listen & watch all of the evidence & make their decision based on the facts before them not a mob outside screaming for justice.

We have to make sure Pell gets a fair trial at the expense of hiding that he molested children… while he stays in his position of power & in his gown telling altar boys suffer unto me the little children… no one knows how many victims there actually are, how many lives he ruined, but we have to make sure no one hears he was convicted because citizens would disregard the law, lie under oath, and subvert justice to stick it to him guilty or not.

This also is troublesome simply because the courts did the same thing the church did, it hid the outcomes of investigations showing abuse & just posted the predator elsewhere with no warning to protect kids… b/c our image matters more than stopping molesters… so we enabled them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m Australian too and I tend to disagree. There are a number of good arguments for both sides but the thought of the State being able to control information in such a fundamental way is terrifying to me.

We are already halfway towards the oligarchical freakshow that is the USA. The last thing that we need is the paedophile sympathisers in our government, and their allies like convicted paedophile Cardinal George Pell, being able to suppress stories that don’t align with their dark ages worldview.

I don’t think ignorance ever serves justice. Should reporting on the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse also have been gagged so as not to bias people against the catholic church (or Pell, for that matter)? The logic is faulty.

Agammamon says:

Remember that its not just Australia that does this. Every country except the US does it. Even the ‘Anglosphere’ countries closest to the US in culture – Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and Ireland.

This sort of thing is not out of the ordinary – its the world’s status quo. Its the US that is the extreme outlier.

Sad as it is, and for all its other problems, the US is the only country in the world that genuinely has free speech.

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