Catholic Church defence of child abuse claim flies in face of justice

11th Dec 2017

The Catholic Church’s vigorous court defence of claims of historical child sexual abuse has exposed its earlier promises not to exploit legal technicalities as completely worthless, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

In 2015 the Catholic Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne said that the Church would not continue to seek to protect its assets by avoiding its responsibility for providing justice for survivors of institutional child abuse. However recent media reports have described the Church using extensive legal technicalities in court in an attempt to deny liability for compensation.

ALA spokesperson and barrister Dr Andrew Morrison RFD SC said the Church’s legal tactics were an egregious breach of trust, and that survivors of institutional child abuse deserved better.

“The legal manoeuvring of the Catholic Church demonstrates the urgent need for legislative reform to ensure that the Church can no longer exploit legal technicalities to avoid liability for child sexual abuse,” Dr Morrison said.

“The law must not allow churches to pretend that their assets are not available to meet compensation claims, as they did when they established the Ellis defence.”

The Ellis defence enabled the Catholic Church to argue successfully that its assets held in trust could not be made available for compensation for injuries arising from historical child sexual abuse, committed by an assistant priest. During the Royal Commission’s investigation of this case, Cardinal George Pell agreed that it was important to be able to sue the Church in cases of child abuse, despite having instructed the Church’s lawyers to mount a vigorous defence to Ellis’s claim.

“Legislation must also catch up with other common law countries, and ensure that legal technicalities cannot allow the Church to avoid liability for the actions of priests and others associated with it,” Dr Morrison said.

Dr Morrison said a report released last week by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse detailed a pattern by Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat of moving known or suspected abusers from parish to parish as new allegations and rumours came to light.

“In that report, the Commission states that it is satisfied that senior church officials were aware that parish priest Gerald Ridsdale had offended against children and still appointed him to positions in which he could continue to abuse,” Dr Morrison said.

“Despite these findings, reports have emerged that the Church is continuing to vigorously defend claims for compensation arising out of the abuse that the Church appears to have facilitated. The perpetrator of this abuse has been convicted; there is no reasonable doubt that it occurred.”

Media reports stated that ‘the church’s legal team denied Ridsdale, who since 1994 has been sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment over multiple abuse cases, was engaged in priestly duties when the abuse ­occurred, denied he was in a ­revered position in the community with a degree of authority and denied the church had a duty of care… the church also ­denied [the claimants] were abused des­pite Ridsdale’s convictions and his guilty pleas.’

“For years the Australian Lawyers Alliance has been concerned that Catholic Church officials could not be trusted to keep their word, or their promises that they would respond to claims for historical child abuse in good faith,” Dr Morrison said.

“The Archbishop of Sydney said on Radio National in 2015 that the ‘... agreed position of every bishop and every leader of a religious congregation in Australia is that we will not be seeking to protect our assets by avoiding responsibility in these matters ...’ and ‘... anyone suing should be told who is the appropriate person to sue and ensure that they are indemnified or insured so that people will get their damages and get their settlements’.’ Similar sentiments have been expressed by the Archbishop of Melbourne,” Dr Morrison said.

“The ALA questions how such undertakings can be reconciled with the Church’s reported vigorous legal defence. What is the Bishop of Ballarat doing to ensure that such undertakings are honoured? These reports show that such undertakings are worth nothing.”

Dr Morrison said the ALA looked forward to contributing to any proposed legislative reform which improved the access to justice for survivors of institutional child abuse.

Tags: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse