The Supreme Court of Victoria has overturned a deed of release signed by a victim of child sexual abuse, who was paid $32,500 by the Catholic Church in 1996 in exchange for his silence and no further legal action.
The landmark decision will enable two things: For this particular victim to now sue the church for damages, and secondly, pave the way for other victims to do so.
It's estimated that there are about 500 victims who signed similar deeds of release, often for small financial payouts, under the Catholic Church's controversial “Melbourne Response.
Overturning ‘paltry' settlements for victims
It was set up in 1996 by George Pell, who had his conviction for child sexual offences overturned in an appeal to the High Court in April this year. He has since left Australia and returned to the Vatican.
The fund was specifically set up by the church to compensate victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests has long been criticised for handing out paltry payments which do not in any way reflect the severity of the life-long damage inflicted on survivors, nor the Church's ability to be financially accountable to victims, given that the value of the Church's assets in Australia alone are estimated at around $30 billion.
Under the Melbourne Response, compensation payments were drastically capped – the average payout was just $36,000 and victims were forced to sign a ‘deed of release' – a legal document waiving their right to take civil action against the Church, or to speak publicly about the abuse. Victims were often put onto the scheme without being offered legal advice, or encouraged to seek it.
In this case, the victim, known only as WCB, was repeatedly sexully assaulted as an alter boy by altar boy over several years between 1977 and 1980 from the age of 11, by Warragul priest Daniel Hourigan. The abuse took place at the Warragul presbytery, in Hourigan's car and on trips to Lakes Entrance, Stawell, Queensland, Ballarat and Orbost, the court heard.
Daniel Hourigan died in 1995, three days after police had charged him with the sexual assault of a boy. It's been reported that after his death senior figures in the diocese where he was a priest confirmed they knew of the offending.
Last year in Victoria, the state government passed a law allowing courts to set aside a past deed of release or court judgment relating to child sexual abuse.
In handing down the finding, Justice Andrew Keogh described the abuse of WCB as “horrendous” and said the evidence supported a “significant assessment of damages.” He accepted that WCB continued to suffer from the significant adverse impacts of the abuse, which has included struggling at school and work, nightmares and depression, heavy drinking and social isolation.
The lawyers representing WCB say they have more than a dozen other survivors in the process of making claims to overturn settlements.
Dismantling the power of the Church over victims
The judgement turns the tables on the power previously held by the church, which has, over many decades covered up abuse by threatening to ostracise complainants, or making small payouts to victims and families who've complained, by moving priests on to other locations, or by reducing their duties.
Finally, victims will have a chance to seek retribution via civil action not just for the compensation they deserve for battling through years of trauma, but to be acknowledged by the Catholic Church.
For many survivors, the opportunity to stand up to the Church that they feared for so long and to have their abuse recognised and legitimised, will go some way towards healing the wounds.
In 2017, the Royal Commission heard 4,444 allegations of abuse involving 1,800 Catholic Church figures. Many victims have died or committed suicide as a result of the abuse. Many others, supported by appropriate legislation, are now gaining the strength to come forward.
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