Prosecution evidence failure in Pell case

Karen Sweeney
·2-min read

Victorian prosecutors waited two years to reveal that two-thirds of their attempts to find overseas news stories on Cardinal George Pell's conviction on sexual abuse charges had failed.

Thirty Australian media companies and individuals are accused of breaching suppression orders and other publication rules by pointing people to overseas reports naming Pell, while they legally couldn't.

While for two years prosecutors have focused on four searches which did bring up links to stories in the New York Post, Washington Post and others naming the cardinal - who has since been acquitted - it was only revealed publicly on Tuesday.

Defence lawyers were told last Friday - two years after proceedings began and on the eve of the trial for contempt of court.

Office of Public Prosecutions solicitor Kirsten Aaskov admitted on Tuesday in Victoria's Supreme Court she hadn't recalled the failed searches until she found them while doing a review of the evidence in the case last Thursday.

Among the Australian articles in issue are a Herald Sun story headlined "The story we can't report on" while another in The Age began "Why media can't report on a high-profile case".

Ms Aaskov searched terms including "Australian convicted of awful crime" and "Well known Australian found guilty" to find some overseas stories.

But defence lawyers said two of those articles were published after the Australian reports so couldn't have been pointed to by the Australian outlets. Ms Aaskov noted there might have been earlier versions.

Eight failed searches included the phrases "Australian media can't report" and "World reading very important story" and didn't bring up any reports naming Cardinal Pell.

At the time he had been convicted in what was known as the "cathedral trial", and was due to face a second "swimmers trial" on separate charges. Suppression orders were lifted in February 2019 after those charges were dropped.

Cardinal Pell's convictions were quashed by the High Court earlier this year.

Ms Aaskov also confessed that she and her colleagues had not investigated what individual journalists contributed to news stories, their role in publication, what was added or altered by editors or whether legal advice was sought before publication.

News of the convictions was first published online by Lachlan Cartwright, an Australian reporter working in the US for the Daily Beast.

He wasn't in court for the trials or the jury's verdict, and was not bound by the suppression order.

In an email to Daily Telegraph editor Ben English, he congratulated the publication on a "cracking splash" - a reference to its front page article.

"Cheers Lachie. History will be on our side on this," English wrote in reply.

Cartwright said that there was no doubt.

"Happy to have played a part to shine a light on these ridiculous and draconian suppression orders. Story is breaking wide here now," he responded.