Prosecutor failed to disclose unsuccessful online Pell searches, trial told

Prosecutor failed to disclose unsuccessful online Pell searches, trial told

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Victoria's Office of Public Prosecutions had a solicitor conduct online searches for news articles that named George Pell in the days after Australian media reports referred to an unnamed high-profile person being convicted of a serious crime, a contempt trial has heard.

But the OPP solicitor failed to disclose the results of her unsuccessful searches for almost two years, the Supreme Court heard on Tuesday, although she disclosed the results of her successful searches to lawyers for media outlets much earlier.

Cardinal George Pell in Rome last month.Credit:AP

The OPP is pursuing media companies and individual journalists for contempt of court over the way Cardinal Pell's conviction on child sex abuse charges was reported in 2018, and allege the media breached a court-imposed suppression order by reporting about the case at the time.

Cardinal Pell was found guilty by a County Court jury on December 11, 2018, and the OPP alleges the media breached a suppression order by reporting over following days that a high-profile person had been found guilty of serious charges, when the cardinal was still due to face another trial. The cardinal was not named in any of the news reports, nor were the nature of his charges disclosed.

Thirty media respondents – comprising 12 corporations and 18 individual journalists – are defending the contempt charges in a trial in the Supreme Court. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are among the media outlets charged. Journalists and editors from those mastheads also face charges as individuals.

Cardinal Pell was released from prison in April when his conviction for sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s was overturned following a successful appeal to the High Court.

The OPP argues the Australian media reports in December 2018 invited readers, viewers and listeners to conduct online searches to find more information.

On Tuesday the trial heard OPP solicitor Kirsten Aaskov used a series of search terms – such as "high profile conviction and crime", "gag order in Australia" and "Australian convicted of awful crime" – on Google as she looked for stories that named Cardinal Pell in the days after his conviction. Four of Ms Aaskov's searches led her to stories in the New York Post, The Washington Post and an American magazine, but another eight searches failed to yield a successful result.

Ms Aaskov last year disclosed the results of her successful searches as part of the OPP's case against the Australian media. However, it was only last week that she disclosed the results of her unsuccessful searches.

Questioned by lawyers for Australian media on Tuesday, Ms Aaskov she "made a mistake" in not disclosing all the search results earlier and that it was an "error on my part".

She said she didn't recall her unsuccessful searches until she discussed the issue with a colleague.

Another OPP solicitor, Lauren Myers, also had knowledge of her colleague's searches. Ms Myers also gave evidence on Tuesday and was asked if the unsuccessful searches should have been disclosed much earlier.

"I suppose so," she said.

The County Court imposed a suppression order over Cardinal Pell's case because at the time of his conviction he was to face another trial. County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd lifted the suppression order, allowing media to report the cardinal's conviction, in February last year when prosecutors abandoned the second trial.

The contempt trial continues.

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