The Catholic Church is facing hundreds of civil claims by victims of clerical sex abuse, bolstered by the royal commission’s findings about Cardinal George Pell’s role in the “catastrophic failure of leadership” in the Ballarat diocese.
The royal commission’s finding that Cardinal Pell knew nearly 40 years ago of the church’s practice of shifting notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale to different parishes to avoid scandal is likely to bolster the cases of abuse survivors who must demonstrate a breach of duty of care to successfully sue the church.
Published in Sydney Morning Herald
A separate finding that Cardinal Pell in 1974 dismissed a plea by a St Patrick’s College student to stop Christian Brother Edward Dowlan abusing other boys at the school will strengthen the compensation claims of people subsequently molested by the convicted child sex offender, their lawyers say.
One victim expressed his disappointment that Cardinal Pell and other church leaders were not going to take responsibility for the harm that “could [and] should have been stopped”.
A deluge of civil claims against the church and its entities has prompted the Supreme Court to establish a specialised Institutional Liability List to administer lawsuits relating to child sex abuse.
The new list includes claims for damages arising from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as well as the Victorian Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. At the end of April, there were 347 cases on the list.
Viv Waller, a lawyer who has spent 25 years representing victims of clerical abuse, said her firm had 260 claims against Catholic entities, including 28 relating to Ridsdale. Of those, 35 have been issued as Victorian Supreme Court proceedings.
Angela Sdrinis, a lawyer who specialises in sexual and institutional abuse cases, said she had about 200 cases on her books relating to the Catholic Church and its entities. She said the royal commission’s findings about Pell published this week would reshape some of those cases.
“We have got a number of matters where you may not be able to show prior knowledge regarding a particular offender but we are now expanding the allegations to include a culture of paedophilia and failure to act in relation to multiple perpetrators,” she said. “These findings are very significant in that regard.”
The royal commission in its previously redacted Ballarat case study examined the “catastrophic failure in the leadership of the diocese and ultimately in the structure of the church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by priests”.
Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli acknowledged he was facing an unprecedented rise in the number of civil claims against the archdiocese.
“We’re getting very many. In the past, we would get a few a month; we’re getting a few a week now because of matters coming forward,” Archbishop Comensoli told The Age.
Ms Waller said while some church entities, including the archdiocese of Melbourne, continued to rigorously defend claims against it, survivors of abuse by Catholic priests and their advocates were determined for the latest royal commission findings to lead to meaningful outcomes.
“Survivors want something to come of this,” she said. “This can’t be without some kind of consequence.
“Lots of terrific things have been achieved for survivors. We have had the parliamentary inquiry, we have had the royal commission, we have had the resulting law reform, we’ve had the establishment of a redress scheme.
“At the same time, there is still a sense that the church has not come to grips with their culpability and failures to look after children. People are now asking, what consequence comes from this finding?”
Law reform recommended by the royal commission and enacted in Victoria in 2018 means the church and its entities are no longer shielded from civil actions by their unincorporated structures and property trust arrangements.
The changes force unincorporated entities, including dioceses of the church, to nominate a defendant in response to lawsuits. Archbishop Comensoli, the Bishop of Ballarat Paul Bird and Cardinal Pell are all named respondents in a Supreme Court case relating to historic child sex abuse by Edward Dowlan.
Joseph Barrett was sexually abused as a child by another paedophile priest, Robert Claffey, in his Ballarat home. Mr Barrett, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, settled a previous lawsuit against the church for a mere $35,000 before the law was changed. He has now engaged lawyers to pursue a fresh claim.
Claffey is serving a prison term for the sexual abuse of 14 children between 1969 and 1992. The royal commission findings published this week detailed how he was shifted from one parish to the next by the former bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, after he admitted to Mulkearns that he had sexually abused children.
Mr Barrett was repeatedly molested by Claffey over an 18-month period in 1978 and 1979 shortly after his sister died. Claffey visited his family home on the pretext of providing comfort for the loss of his sister. George Pell was also a regular visitor to the house at the time, Mr Barrett said.
“Lots of priests were regular visitors,” he said. “They would have known that this man was coming. My blood boils that my parents weren’t warned.
“It is really disappointing to see George Pell and the hierarchy are not going to stand up and take responsibility. It could have been stopped. It should have been stopped.”
By Chip Le Grand and Farrah Tomazin
Published in Sydney Morning Herald
8 May 2020