Journalists have ways of wriggling around the ‘sub judice’ rule
On Wednesday, July 26, Cardinal George Pell appeared in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to face charges of historical sex abuse. Interest in the case is intense, as the Cardinal is the most senior figure of the Catholic Church anywhere in the world to be formally charged with sexual abuse. In the Vatican he works – or was working – closely with Pope Francis on the finances of the Holy See. In Australia he was Archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney and a lightning rod for criticism of the Catholic Church over the scandalous behaviour of some priests.
The Cardinal did not enter a plea in the brief hearing. But his barrister, Robert Richter QC, made a statement on his behalf. “For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest might I indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain his presumed innocence that he has.”
Officials in the state of Victoria have insisted that Pell can and will receive a fair trial. A key element for ensuring this in Australia (and other countries, like New Zealand, South Africa and Canada) is the sub judice (under judgement) rule. All public comment on cases before the court is banned. A breach of the rule can lead to prosecution for contempt of court.
The prosecutor, Andrew Tinney SC, insisted on the importance of the rule, reminding journalists at the beginning of the hearing that the sub judice period had started. “All reports should be limited to fair and accurate reports of the proceeding,” he said.
“Any publication of material speculating about the strength or otherwise of the case, the prospect of a fair trial or trials being had, whether the accused should or should not have been charged, the likelihood of conviction or acquittal, or any other such matters would be in contempt of court.”
No doubt the merits of the case are being dissected in half the households and tea rooms of the nation, but in the newspapers, radio and television there is an eerie silence. Pell’s next appearance in court will be October 6. Until then the media is effectively gagged – in the interest of giving the accused a “fair go”.
However, there are ways to obey the letter of the Australian law, but not its spirit. And no one is better at this, I think, than the ABC, the government-financed national broadcaster.
Over the past week, leading up the media frenzy over Pell’s brief appearance, the ABC ran article after article defaming Christianity. Without mentioning a word about Australia’s best-known Catholic, its journalists blackened the record of the religion he represents.
Remember that Pell appeared in court on July 26. A week or so before, the ABC began running a series of articles on domestic violence and the “church” – as if all denominations are the same.
July 18. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God”. We learn that men use the Bible to abuse their wives. “Your problem is you won’t obey me,” one Evangelical tells his wife. “The Bible says you must obey me and you refuse. You are a failure as a wife, as a Christian, as a mother. You are an insubordinate piece of s**t.”
July 20. “I was raped and controlled by my husband for decades. He was a priest.” The headline says it all.
July 24. “How to navigate the research on domestic violence and Christian churches: A few frequently asked questions.” The authors suggest that advising a couple to stay together to save a marriage perpetuates abuse.
July 26. “How Churches Enable Domestic Violence.” On the day Pell appeared in court, an historian argued that “Christian theologies of personal responsibility, self-sacrifice and forgiveness have been inappropriately applied to victims, doing enormous harm.”
July 26. “Could The Handmaid’s Tale happen today? For some women, it’s already reality.” A journalist for ABC’s Triple J radio station wonders whether Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel (and TV series) about “a puritanical religious movement” which treats women as sex slaves is plausible. The answer is No, but just asking the question places a cloud over traditional Christianity.
July 28. “Asking Christians to do better by domestic violence victims is not an attack on Christianity.” An American Protestant theologian insists that the Bible is used by many men to justify abuse and domestic violence. The article was illustrated with Rosary beads.
We have obviously moved into a new era, when Christian beliefs and morals are being attacked as fundamentally immoral. Fidelity to Christian traditions is being depicted as a recipe for lifelong self-destructive misery. The religion of Christians and the religion of the Aztecs are really not much different. Articles like this ABC series help readers view clergy – especially prominent clergy — through a lens of suspicion, if not outright hostility.
Expect more solemn critiques of Christian doctrines in coming weeks. They will serve to make the case against Pell just far more plausible.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.