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Australian media fined $840,000 for gag order breach in Pell intercourse assault case

Australian Cardinal George Pell gestures while speaking during an interview with Reuters in Rome, Italy, Dec. 7, 2020. REUTERS / Guglielmo Mangiapane

An Australian court on Friday ordered a dozen media outlets to pay a total of A $ 1.1 million ($ 842,270) in fines for violating a repression order after convicting former Vatican Treasurer George Pell of sexual assault reported on children.

The 12 media outlets, primarily owned by Nine Entertainment Co (NEC.AX) and Rupert Murdochs News Corp (NWSA.O) pleaded guilty in February of violating the gag order in reporting the cardinal’s trial and sentencing after the state agreed to drop all charges against journalists and editors.

Victoria Supreme Court Justice John Dixon condemned the media outlets, saying they had “thwarted the suppression order because it diminished its purpose or effectiveness by reporting information contrary to the order’s terms”.

Pell’s conviction for molesting two choirboys was overturned last April after being incarcerated for more than a year. He was the senior Catholic church official who was jailed for sexually abusing children.

Reporting on Pell’s trial and verdict in 2018 was gagged by the County Court of Victoria across Australia to ensure the cardinal received a fair trial on additional charges he faced. These charges were later dropped.

After he was convicted by a jury in December 2018, foreign media published the verdict, naming Pell and the indictment, despite the repression warrant.

Australian media then released reports stating that they could not cover important news about an unidentified high-ranking person, and some indicated that the news could be found online.

Dixon said Friday he does not accept the media’s argument that their violations of the suppression order were due to an honest but erroneous assumption that their reporting did not violate the order.

He imposed the highest aggregate fine of A $ 450,000 on Nine Entertainment’s newspaper The Age for two articles and an editorial, while on News Corp’s website, he imposed the highest individual fine of A $ 400,000 for an online Article imposed.

The Age and News Life Media “purposely took a risk by deliberately releasing information from the trial for a specific purpose – a collateral assault on the role of repressive orders in Victoria’s criminal justice system – that was obviously inconsistent with the purpose of the suppressive order.” said Dixon in his judgment.

The maximum fine for a company for violating a suppression order is nearly A $ 500,000.

Dixon did not accept the state’s argument that the media, by publishing their articles, was trying to pressure the County Court to overturn the suppression order in December 2018, which would have made the violation “enormous and extreme”.

In deciding on the sentences, Dixon said he took into account the media companies’ agreement to pay A $ 650,000 to cover costs for prosecutors and the media’s “sincere and unconditional apology” to the courts.

The Australian branch of Nine Entertainment and News Corp was not immediately available for comment.

($ 1 = 1.3060 Australian dollars)

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