SYDNEY — A judge began the sentencing hearing Wednesday for Australian Cardinal George Pell for sexual assault even as details of the case spill out more than two months after he was convicted of abusing two choirboys 22 years ago.
The trial of the 77-year-old Pell again brought the Vatican’s abuse scandals into the highest levels of the church hierarchy. The verdict was made public just days after a Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the church.
But the Pell case, which unfolded in a Melbourne courtroom, also was a test of whether court privacy rules are still enforceable — or applicable — with borderless news sites and social media.
At a hearing Wednesday, Victoria state County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd said that the fallen priest’s sentence would need to deter others from committing similar crimes but also that his prospects for rehabilitation are good and he is unlikely to commit more crimes, the Age newspaper reported. A prosecutor, Mark Gibson, told Kidd that Pell should receive jail time.
The announcement Tuesday of Pell’s conviction in December came after a media gag order was lifted by prosecutors, who dropped separate sexual assault charges against Pell. As a result, Pell will not face another trial.
That allowed Australian media to officially report Pell’s conviction. Still, it was something of an exercise in repackaging old news.
It was clear to anyone following the case that Pell had been found guilty late last year. Some media outlets outside Australia, including The Washington Post, reported the conviction — and that found its way onto Australian websites and social networks.
Even Australian media outlets obliged to follow the gag order found ways to indirectly get the message across.
The front page of the Dec. 13 Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne had a single word in huge white type against a black background: Censored.
“The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians,” read the subhead, referring to Australia’s Victoria state. “The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news. But trust us. It’s a story you deserve to read.”
Pell was mobbed by reporters as he left the courtroom Tuesday. He made no comment, but his lawyer said he planned to appeal. Sentencing hearings were scheduled to begin Wednesday.
A child-abuse survivor — identified as “Michael Advocate” because his real name is suppressed under Australian law — shouted to Pell, “Burn in hell,” the Reuters news agency reported.
The conviction of Pell stems from incidents against two boys, then both 13 years old, in December 1996 and February 1997, according to prosecutors, after Pell had conducted Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
The Vatican said Tuesday that the news was “painful.” It said Pell has been under “precautionary” orders to refrain from contact with minors and cannot exercise public ministry. Those measures will remain in place, the Vatican said, while it awaits a “definitive assessment of the facts.”
In a separate statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said Pell’s conviction has “shocked many across Australia and around the world.”
In the United States, Australian-style gag orders imposed by judges would meet immediate challenges as censorship and a violation of the First Amendment. Some general limitations, such as not reporting the names of minors in abuse cases, are often followed.
But elsewhere, several rules can prevent the public from being partly or fully aware of court proceedings.
In some cases, lawmakers have argued that forcing courts to make trials accessible to the public would prevent security agencies from providing classified evidence considered necessary to convict terrorism suspects, for instance. This has led to some trials being fully closed to the public.
More common are suppression orders restricting coverage on certain details or for a certain amount of time.
Australia and Britain are among only a few countries where judges also are able to suppress reporting by issuing gag orders. Those who breach suppression orders in Australia can face serious punishments.
But as more readers consume news online, gag orders have become far less effective, as international media outlets may be able to circumvent the restrictions. Critics also argue that rumors about trials, including misinformation, can spread on social media within seconds.
A British committee of judges ruled in 2011 that gag orders were used too frequently. In their complaints, critics previously had also argued that the public was largely unaware of the extent to which gag orders restricted the work of reporters and human rights advocates, as reporting the existence of such orders was often illegal.
“A degree of secrecy is often necessary to do justice, but where secrecy is ordered, it should only be to the extent strictly necessary to achieve the interests of justice,” committee director David Neuberger argued at the time.
In some recent cases, tensions over media suppression orders have boiled over into public.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged foreign media outlets last year to respect a suppression order on a person accused in a British backpacker’s killing, after tabloids in Britain revealed the accused’s name.
“We don’t want anything to jeopardize the case that the police are pursuing,” Ardern said in December, the same week Pell was convicted in Australia.
Later Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman said on Twitter that Pell no longer held his role as economy minister, widely considered the Vatican’s third most powerful position. It was unclear when that change happened, and the spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. When the charges were first announced in 2017, Pell took a leave of absence from that role. Last year, Pope Francis dropped Pell from his de facto cabinet, known as the C-9.
In Pell’s case, the removal of the gag order let loose details from the trial.
In the 1996 incident, the Age newspaper reported, Pell caught the two boys drinking sacramental wine in a changing room. He told the boys they were in trouble, exposed himself, pushed one of the boys close to his penis and then placed his penis in the other boy’s mouth, the court was told.
Pell then masturbated while he groped the second boy’s genitals, the court was told.
In the second incident, in 1997, one of the victims testified that Pell had pushed him against a wall in a hallway of the cathedral and squeezed his genitals. He reported the incident to police in 2015. The other boy died several years ago, the Age reported.
Last week, Francis convened a Vatican summit on tackling clerical abuse to demonstrate the church’s determination to act against abusive priests across the world. While the gathering was unprecedented, it led to no specific new measures, though the church says it will now work to strengthen guidelines across the world aimed at punishing both abusers and any higher-ups who fail to report abusive behavior.
Also this month, the Vatican defrocked former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who once led the archdiocese of Washington, for sexual abuse.
On Tuesday, one of Pell’s attorneys, Paul Galbally, said the priest continued to maintain his innocence and has lodged an appeal.
“Although originally the cardinal faced allegations from a number of complainants, all charges except for those the subject of the appeal have now been either withdrawn, discharged or discontinued,” Galbally said outside the Melbourne courthouse. “He will not be commenting in the meantime.”
Noack reported from Hamilton, New Zealand.