A dozen Australian media firms have agreed to plead guilty for breaching a suppression order on reporting on the trial and conviction of former Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell in 2018 for child sexual assault, a court heard on Monday.
Cardinal Pell was cleared last year of the sexual abuse charges after spending 13 months in prison.
The cardinal was found guilty by a jury in December 2018 of sexually assaulting two choirboys, making him the highest-ranking Catholic official convicted on child sex crimes.
Reporting on the trial and verdict was gagged Australia-wide by the County Court of Victoria to ensure the cardinal got a fair trial on further charges he was due to face. Those charges were later dropped.
As part of the agreement announced on Monday, the state prosecutor said it was dismissing charges of sub judice contempt against all of the media firms and all charges against 15 reporters and editors at those newspapers, radio and television stations.
The surprise agreement was reached nearly two years after the charges were brought, nearly three months after the media trial began and 10 months after Cardinal Pell was acquitted by the High Court.
Despite the Australian gag on reporting, foreign media published news on the outcome of Cardinal Pell’s trial, naming him and the charges.
Australian media then published reports saying they were unable to cover major news about an unidentified high-profile person, with some pointing out that the news was accessible online.
The state initially alleged that dozens of media, journalists and editors, mostly with News Corp and Nine Entertainment Co and its Fairfax arm, had breached the suppression order and interfered with the administration of justice in running those articles.
Breaches of suppression orders can be punished with up to five years jail and fines of nearly A$100,000 for individuals and nearly A$500,000 for companies.
Some charges had been dismissed over the past two years, but 79 charges remained as of January.
“The prosecution has resolved,” prosecutor Lisa De Ferrari told the Supreme Court of Victoria on Monday.
“Each corporate respondent has indicated that it will plead guilty in respect of each publication for which they are charged to contempt by breaching the proceeding suppression order,” she said.
“Given the plea and the acceptance of responsibility in respect of each publication … the director (of public prosecutions) has determined that it is in the public interest to dismiss the remaining charges.”
The companies have also agreed to pay the costs of prosecution, she said.
The plea hearing has been set for Feb. 10-11.
Last week, former editor of the Age, Alex Lavelle, the first media witness to appear in the trial, told the court he ran a story only to explain why the newspaper could not cover the news that was being reported overseas, as the newspaper had received numerous queries from the public.
Readers were “wondering if the Age was part of a Catholic church conspiracy,” Matthew Collins, the lawyer representing Nine Entertainment, told the court.
Lavelle said based on legal advice, he believed the article did not breach the suppression order.
A spokeswoman for Nine said in emailed comments: “Our decision to enter a guilty plea was important to protect our individual people, who were simply going about their jobs.”
News Ltd, the Australian arm of News Corp, was not immediately available to comment.