Claims of a "Catholic conspiracy" were partly behind a Melbourne newspaper's decision to publish a story about Cardinal George Pell's child sexual abuse conviction, a court has heard.
The Age newspaper, journalists and editors are facing contempt charges over articles published after Cardinal Pell's now-overturned conviction in December 2018, over alleged breaches of suppression orders.
Australian media were banned from reporting the verdict in the case until February 2019 because Cardinal Pell, who has since returned to Rome, was due to face a second trial.
The Age's then-editor Alex Lavelle, who left the job last year, was called to give evidence in a contempt trial in Victoria's Supreme Court on Thursday.
He defended his decision to publish a story which did not name Cardinal Pell, but made references to the court order prohibiting publication of a story about a "high profile" Australian who had been convicted of unnamed offences.
Lavelle said the decision was in part sparked by readers contacting the paper and reporters questioning why the story was not being run.
The story was published internationally and gained widespread attention on social media.
Among the suggestions was that The Age was choosing not to publish because it was part of a "Catholic conspiracy" to cover up the conviction, the trial before Justice John Dixon heard.
Lavelle said he originally considered running a story on the day of the verdict, but ultimately decided to wait until the news had broken elsewhere.
"My opinion at the time was the news would be published somewhere or spoken about somewhere or leaked out on social media," he said.
That happened overnight and the story was published on December 12.
An editorial for the paper argued that it was in the public interest for the suppression order to be rejected.
Lavelle, who said he thought it was appropriate that the order had been made in the first place, said he had sympathy for the editorial view but his personal view wasn't so strong.
"We were in an unprecedented situation and uncharted waters regarding the efficacy of the suppression order, given the proliferation of the news on social media, so the argument was worth having," he said.
The editorial was removed after County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd expressed his fury at media coverage, and at a later hearing he refused an application for the suppression order to be lifted.
Lavelle told the court in his 25-year career as a journalist he had never faced charges for contempt or breaching a suppression order, and that the had a "very low" appetite for taking those sorts of risks.
Ahead of publication he referred to the story in internal emails as "controversial", a remark which he explained on Thursday.
"This was potentially an unprecedented situation where there was a suppression order in place but it was a feeling that the news of the trial would leak out," he said.
The case, which began in April 2019, is continuing.
Australian Associated Press