Covering child abuse in the Catholic Church under a court gag order

March 14, 2019
Cardinal George Pell. Photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AFP/Getty Images.

In February 2016, Lucie Morris-Marr broke news of a police probe into allegations that Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, the third most powerful clergyman in the Catholic Church, had sexually abused children. She had been investigating Pell for 10 months; it would be another three years before she would report the outcome of that investigation and the subsequent trial. In that time, Morris-Marr saw her reporting labeled part of a “witch hunt,” weathered calls for an investigation into her sourcing by the Church, and lost her job at the Melbourne newspaper that published her scoop.

In December, Pell was found guilty of sexual penetration of a child under 16, and four counts of indecency with, or in the presence, of a child. When the guilty verdict came through, Morris-Marr was unable to report on it, thanks to a suppression order issued by the Australian courts. When the order lifted on February 26, journalists in Australia were finally able to cover the most important sexual abuse story in recent Australian history. Pell’s sentencing, which took place yesterday, was broadcast live on Australian television and radio. “This story has tested anyone who gets involved in it,” says Morris-Marr. “Journalists, lawyers, the media—everything has been on trial in a way because it’s been so controversial.”


When Morris-Marr reported that Pell was being investigated, Australia was in the midst of a five-year public inquiry into child sexual abuse in institutional settings. There was national outrage about potential cover-ups in the Catholic Church. Pell was already under scrutiny for his handling of complaints against other members of the clergy—particularly Gerald Ridsdale, a priest who Pell shared a home with in the 1970s, and who was convicted in 1993 of sexual abuse and indecent assault against 65 children.

Andrew Bolt, one of Morris-Marr’s colleagues at the Herald Sun and a well-known Australian conservative commentator, published a column questioning her sourcing. Morris-Marr says she felt pressured by her bosses not to make a fuss about it. When she did, her contract wasn’t renewed. “I was forced out of my job basically because I did question the management and the bosses, which came at huge cost because I really loved that job,” she says. “But I don’t regret it […] In a story like this, when there’s interference with your reporting and sources are not being protected, you have to fight for that.”

The Herald Sun disputes this version of events. In a statement, a spokesperson said, “The Herald Sun has never backed away from its decision to publish that George Pell was being investigated by police.”

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After she left the newspaper in June 2016, Morris-Marr says she felt isolated. “I was the only journalist who’d alleged it. I then got attacked by the Cardinal. As far as I knew, there was an IBAC [independent broad-based anti-corruption commission] probe into my story. The cardinal had written to ask for a public inquiry.”

Reporter Lucie Morris-Marr. Courtesy photo.

When Louise Milligan, an investigative journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation first read Morris-Marr’s story about the police probe, she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she “didn’t believe it.” But after extensive investigation, in July 2016, Milligan became the first journalist to report some of the details of the allegations of the two choirboys whom Pell was ultimately convicted of abusing. Her reporting, which included the extensive accounts of survivors of abuse and their families, also resulted in the 384-page book, Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell. The book won Milligan the 2017 Walkley Book Award and Sir Owen Dixon Chambers Law Reporter of the Year Award.

During the trial, one of the choirboys recounted his memory of abuse at the hands of Pell. (The other had died in 2014 from an accidental drug overdose after an addiction to heroin which began at the age of 14—the year after he was abused by Pell.) The incident took place on a Sunday in 1996. After singing at mass in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, the two 13-year-old choirboys stole away from the rest of the choir group. They ended up in the priest’s sacristy, where they came across some altar wine and began to drink it. Pell, who was archbishop of Melbourne at the time, discovered them. He exposed his penis to one boy, and then forced the other to perform oral sex on him. A month or so later, Pell abused one of the choirboys again when he groped him in a corridor of the cathedral.

The victim’s testimony was given in closed court; the only people who heard it were the jury, the lawyers and court staff, the judge, and Pell himself. Journalists heard parts of the testimony through transcripts read by lawyers during the trial. Milligan told the ABC this was the toughest story she had ever done. “I felt this huge responsibility to the complainants who had come forward to me to not let them down,” she said.

Many of the journalists covering the Pell case have covered child sex abuse for years. Melissa Davey, The Guardian Australia’s Melbourne bureau chief, remembers the aftermath of Morris-Marr’s initial scoop in the Herald Sun. Davey herself has written dozens of stories about child sexual abuse. But, she says, Morris-Marr was more heavily scrutinized than she ever was. “Pell has very, very high-profile supporters in the media, and just as quickly as the story broke, there were articles coming out to discredit it,” she says.

The trial that convicted Pell was a retrial. The case had been heard before, but had resulted in a hung jury. Each of the trials lasted five weeks. It took a jury almost five days of deliberation to pronounce Pell guilty on all counts. By then, the court case had been running for almost 20 months.

“It was a surge of adrenaline,” says Morris-Marr, who covered the trials for CNN and The New Daily, an Australian news website. “We’d been sat in a room next to Pell’s room, where he was drinking Diet Coke, reading The Australian, and we were eating sweets and chatting and all getting a bit fed up and desperate for this verdict. Suddenly we got an email from the media officer and we all ran down the corridor. When that first guilty came, it regarded the boy who died in 2014, the choirboy, so it was very emotionally charged.”

“It was really quiet,” Davey says. “I think there was a sense of shock in the room, not because we didn’t believe he was guilty or we didn’t believe the jury. After months of our lives spent in this case, it was over and the verdict was definitive. All five charges—that was incredible.” Pell denies the charges and is appealing the conviction.

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Despite the significance of the verdict, the journalists who were present in the courtroom couldn’t write about it.

Journalists are typically free to report on court cases in Australia thanks to the principle of open justice. Although the media was allowed to report some details from Pell’s committal hearing in March 2018, it was barred from reporting on the trial itself, owing to a potential second trial that involved separate abuse allegations. Both the prosecution and defense argued in favour of the suppression order to ensure that the second trial would not compromised by an inability to find an impartial jury. The suppression order was put in place on June 25, 2018.

The verdict was reported by some overseas media outlets, including The Daily Beast and The Washington Post, which had not sent reporters to cover the case. Soon it was all over Twitter. This caused frustration for media outlets who had journalists in the courtroom.

“It was upsetting because there were eight [journalists who] had been [in the trial] every day, yet the whole world was writing about it,” Morris-Marr says. “It was going viral, trending number two on Twitter and we felt it was like our story was being stolen.”

But Morris-Marr says she supported the suppression order because she understood why it was put in place. “Other people were moaning about it, but mostly it was people who weren’t covering it because they didn’t understand the complexities,” Morris-Marr says.

Davey believes that the suppression order was both worthwhile and effective. “Some details did end up leaking when the verdict was delivered in December,” she says. “But it really prevented a lot.”

While there was good reason for the suppression order in the Pell case, Victorian courts have been accused of overusing them. There were reportedly 1,594 orders made to suppress information between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2016. The national law council has since called for a review of suppression orders to ensure they’re consistent across Australia, and that they account for the fact that news is often shared on social media.

Any journalist who broke the suppression order would have been barred from covering the case, and potentially prosecuted and jailed, Davey says. The maximum penalties for breaching a suppression order are five years jail and a fine of more than A$96,000 ($69,000 USD), or up to A$500,000 for a company. “There’s a legitimate conversation to be had in Australia about the overuse of suppression orders, and the purpose they serve in an era where everyone’s on social media,” she says. “But in this particular case, there was nothing unusual or overreaching about the suppression order. Pell was facing two trials.”

Australian media outlets didn’t report the verdict, but some came dangerously close to flouting the order. Although they didn’t name Pell or the outcome of the trial, they alluded to the fact that there had been a verdict in a significant court case that they were unable to report on. The Herald Sun published a blackened front page that read: “The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians. The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news. But trust us it’s a story you deserve to read.”

Davey thinks this was a bit cheeky. “Not a single media company sent a lawyer to argue that the suppression order shouldn’t be in place for Victoria [the Australian state in which the trials took place],” she says. “There’s a process to go through.”

When the second trial was dropped after key evidence was ruled inadmissible, the suppression order was lifted; the guilty verdict was reported in Australia on February 26. In the days since, dozens of Australian journalists and news organizations have received legal notices asking why they should not be charged with contempt of court. (Some, but not all, of these contempt-of-court cases have subsequently been dropped.)

Once the order was lifted, news alerts lit up phones across the country and there was wall-to-wall coverage of the verdict. Those who had been in court every day were suddenly in high demand. “Because there was so few journalists in the case, I was doing interviews early in the morning, nighttime, TV, radio, because no one else had a source in the case,” Davey says.

American journalist and Daily Beast editor Noah Shachtman drew the ire of the Australian press for a tweet he posted after the suppression order was lifted that admonished Australian journalists who had called out his publication for breaking the order.

Many Australian journalists supported the suppression order because they believed that the kind of blanket media coverage that would inevitably result from reporting the verdict could harm the alleged victim in the second trial. “For me it was about justice being done, not about me being able to report,” Davey says.

While the media commentary continues, Davey feels a duty to answer any questions people may have about the case, and has been doing just that on Twitter, Reddit, and in a story for The Guardian. “Of course there’s a role for freedom of speech, of course there’s a role for commentary, but it’s got to be informed,” she says. “If I can contribute to that informed commentary by answering questions about the process, then I think that’s an integral part of my job as a journalist.”

Melbourne University Press has announced that an updated version of Milligan’s book, which had been removed from the shelves of Victorian bookshops due to the suppression order less than two months after it was first published, will be released on March 28. Lucie Morris-Marr also has a book in the works, which promises to tell the inside story of the trial.


When Pell was sentenced yesterday, the court took the unusual step of allowing media outlets to run a live broadcast of the judge’s remarks, which ran over an hour in length. The judge justified the decision as “a clear demonstration of transparent and open justice and an accessible communication of the work of the court to the community of a case of interest.”

Indeed, it seemed much of Australia, and the world, was tuned into the sentencing. One journalist described the scene on Twitter: “Groups of shoppers at my local are gathered watching live from a strangers iPad. Others are glued to their phones. I wonder how many Aussies have stopped working, stopped cooking, stopped watching their kids during Pell’s sentence.”

Pell was sentenced to six years’ jail, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.

This case has been a marathon for the reporters covering it, but for some it has also been a period of incredible growth. “It’s been a real journey learning about what the role of a journalist is, who I am, and what my values are,” says Morris-Marr. “I think you just really have to take seriously the privileged position you’re in and who you’re representing. You mustn’t be corrupted. It’s risky to take a stand, but at the end of the day journalists represent the public.”

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Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation in Australia. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.