Look cautiously at the Catholic Church’s compensation proposal

14th Aug 2014

The Catholic Church’s proposal for a national compensation scheme for victims of institutional abuse may not prevent additional bullying of victims of child abuse, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

A submission by the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council to the Royal Commission on Institutional Response to Child Abuse yesterday proposed a national redress scheme to be administered by the Commonwealth.

ALA National President Andrew Stone said the Catholic Church could be commended for proposing the scheme and for recognising that it mistreated people in the past by forcing settlement under duress. “It is commendable that the Church has started to recognise past misdeeds – not only the sexual abuse, but also the abusive ‘healing’ schemes,” Mr. Stone said.

However Mr Stone cautioned that the devil was in the detail, with even a cursory analysis of the redress scheme proposed by the Catholic Church showing that it was extremely flawed when individual elements of the proposal were examined.

“Flaws in the Church’s proposal are readily apparent; for a start the church clearly wants the scheme to operate with limits on victims’ access to the benefit of a lawyer,” Mr Stone said.

“Abuse victims may still need to prove ‘abuse’, however there is no matching offer for the Church to give up its own lawyers and not to use the full power and wealth of the church to argue over liability to pay claims.”

“ ‘No lawyers’ is code for church power over victims,” Mr Stone said. “The reason the Church wants lawyers out of the room is not because of the cost of the lawyer but rather because lawyers guide and assist victims to the recovery of their proper entitlement to damages.”

“There is nothing in this proposal to prevent settlement conferences in which Church representatives can say to the unaccompanied victim ‘you can’t win your case, take this discounted settlement and go away, Mr Stone said.

“That is exactly the sort of bullying behaviour that occurred in the past.”

Mr Stone said that the scheme also appeared to require the taxpayer to shoulder part of the burden of funding payouts to victims of child abuse.

“The Catholic Church’s proposal does not make it clear whether it is offering to pay its full share of the redress,” Mr Stone said. “It is unclear if the Church is actually seeking taxpayer subsidy for the scheme.”

“The Church is also proposing caps on damages, making vague references to ‘community standards’, Mr Stone said.

“The legal system already has caps on damages, both statutory and judge-mandated. It is unclear what lower caps the church wants.  Under the Civil Liability Act applicable to NSW claims, damages for pain and suffering for a victim of extended abuse is capped at $551,000.  Under the NSW Victims Compensation Scheme, it is $50,000.  Which cap is the church suggesting represents community standard?

 “In the past they have applied appallingly low caps to their internal redress schemes which they have established. Their perception of community standards unfortunately doesn’t really seem to match the community.”

Truth, Justice and Healing Council’s submission on redress schemes can be found here.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance submission can be found here.

Tags: Compensation Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse