Victoria must now act on Pell's Melbourne Response compensation scheme
7th Mar 2019
In the wake of the publication last week of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction, there is an important question to be asked on behalf of Victorian survivors of clerical sexual abuse. If the conviction against one of Australia’s most senior Catholics is to be upheld, how can the state possibly continue to abide by a sexual abuse compensation scheme personally designed by Pell himself?
While the Victorian government has done an exemplary job to date on key reforms recommended by the sex abuse royal commission, it is outrageous that a scheme Pell created is still being used to disadvantage survivors in the state.
It is well known that Pell was the architect behind the 'Melbourne Response', a compensation scheme now widely recognised as one that minimised the church’s legal and financial liability. Under the Melbourne Response, compensation payments were drastically capped (with an average payout of $36,100) and victims were forced to sign a deed of settlement waiving their right to take civil action. The victims were coerced by the church on to this substandard scheme, without being offered legal advice as to their rights.
After revelations last week of Pell’s guilty verdict, there is now a growing call for victims who obtained compensation through the Melbourne Response scheme to have courts set aside their deed of settlement with the church. This would give them a chance to pursue a fairer settlement amount, rather than a figure we know to have been harshly minimised in the church’s favour.
Lifting deeds of release in historical abuse claims is an important law reform that has already been legislated and passed in Queensland and Western Australia, which ensures that survivors are compensated appropriately for the long-term pain and suffering caused as a result of historical abuse. Victims in those other states have since received additional payouts, after institutions set aside their deed of settlement with the court. For the same to happen in Victoria, the state government needs to legislate such reform.
Victoria has played a leading role in implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission. The state government has moved swiftly to both commit to and deliver reforms, including a commitment to join the redress scheme, introducing penalties for failures to report child abuse, the lifting of limitation periods, introducing a non-delegable duty of care on organisations, and reversing the onus of proof on institutions.
The Royal Commission recommendations have rightly been the leading force behind national reform for victims of historic sexual abuse. But the distressing history of these issues in Victoria means that the Melbourne Response has lingered as a Victoria-specific problem. For that reason, Victoria needs to go above and beyond to meet the needs of survivors in the state.
For years, survivors, including many of my own clients, have fought against endless challenges and road blocks to seek justice. But the events of last week have tipped the balance back again towards survivors. No sexual abuse survivor should be expected to abide by a scheme the architect of which was a man convicted of the very abuse it has been set up to compensate, and that is why we must act on this issue in Victoria.
Now is the opportunity for the Victorian government to again show leadership in this space, and act to legislate the lifting of deeds of release as an urgent priority. We would respectfully also call on all Victorian parliamentarians to pass such legislation without delay or political agenda.
This is an edited version of an article originally published by The Age on 4 March 2019. It has been republished with the author’s permission. The original article can be found here.
Dimi Ioannou is a Principal Lawyer at Maurice Blackburn and leads the firm’s Public and Product Liability team in Melbourne. Dimi is also a senior member of the firm's national sexual and institutional abuse compensation team. She has a particular interest in bringing claims for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).