The Catholic Church has taken an increasingly aggressive approach towards alleged victims of now-deceased pedophile priests, using recent rulings to pressure survivors into accepting “paltry amounts” or risk having their claims permanently blocked, lawyers say.
In June, New South Wales the courts remained permanently a civil action brought by a survivor, known as GLJ, who alleged horrific abuse at the hands of Father Clarence Anderson in Lismore in 1968 when she was 14 years old.
The the court ruled there could not be a fair trial because Anderson was dead, leaving the church unable to properly respond to the survivor’s claims.
The case was put on hold despite documentary evidence that high-ranking church officials knew Anderson abused boys at least four years before GLJ’s alleged assault, but did not remove him from the clergy, instead dragging him to parishes where he continued to abuse children.
This knowledge extended to the then Bishop of Lismore, who wrote in 1971 that Anderson had a “recurring problem in sexual matters…it occurred to me about six years ago and in all cases, young boys were involved”.
At the time, law firms that regularly handle child sex abuse cases predicted the nature of the NSW ruling “would encourage” and “embolden” the church and other institutions to seek permanent stays in the many cases where pedophile clergy had died, even “when evidence indicates a propensity for child abuse”.
In the months that followed, law firms that spoke to the Guardian said they noticed a change in the church‘s approach to such cases.
Arnold Thomas & Becker, which is pursuing claims on behalf of more than 700 victims of abuse, said defendants – especially the church – now frequently threaten to seek a stay in such cases.
“We have absolutely seen a change in the behavior of the defendants since these rulings came down, particularly the Catholic Church,” said Kim Price, head of the company’s abuse team.
“Defendants now frequently threaten to stay a case on the grounds that they cannot receive a ‘fair trial’ due to a survivor’s delay in coming forward.
“Including, surprisingly, cases where the alleged pedophile has multiple victims. The threat is usually related to the fact that the perpetrator is deceased and unable to assist the accused in his investigations or his defence. »
Shine Lawyers special counsel Thomas Wallace-Pannell said his firm has seen a significant increase in the number of stay applications filed or threatened.
“Institutions are taking a much more aggressive stance,” he said.
“There is no doubt that stay requests are used to put significant pressure on survivors to accept pittance or walk away altogether.
“It is disappointing that institutions are willing to incur what would be significant legal fees to investigate, file and litigate a stay application rather than redirect that money to deserving abuse survivors.”
The firm which represented GLJ, Ken Cush & Associates, is seeking leave to appeal to the High Court. The court will hear their request on Friday.
The case has already been cited in a request for a stay in another abuse case, involving Trinity Grammar School and the Marist Brothers separately. cited the death of a suspected pedophile brother in his successful attempt to permanently stay an abuse complaint last month.
The church had argued that GLJ never complained before Anderson’s death in 1996, leaving it unable to investigate the veracity of his charges and making a fair trial impossible.
The Royal Commission on Child Abuse found that there were significant barriers for complainants of child sexual abuse. He found that, on average, plaintiffs did not come forward for 20 years and recommended that all states remove the statute of limitations for bringing a civil suit. All states and territories have since done so.
In Victoria, Price said recent developments went “against the intention of Parliament in 2015 when it scrapped the statute of limitations for child victims of abuse”.
“We call on the Victorian Government to change relevant legislation to restrict the use to which defendants can avoid liability for claims arising from the time taken by survivors to come forward,” she said.
Grace Wilson, a partner at Rightside Legal, a firm that regularly handles abuse cases, said the church has become increasingly desperate in its tactics, describing the stay requests as “the last ditch effort to embolden survivors go quietly”.
“It’s quite infuriating to survivors that a religious order can say, ‘Our pedophile priest, whom we did nothing to deter him, is dead and we cannot properly defend the claim because of this'” , she said.
She said she had seen no evidence that the Supreme Court of Victoria was taking the approach taken in New South Wales. She expects the church to seek to use residence applications more and more.
“There will be more and more attempts by defendants to stop claims in their tracks with this tactic, but those stay requests are rarely successful,” Wilson said.
“When the abuser has a background, it would be difficult – as it should be – to block a claim against Victoria.”
The Catholic Church and its attorneys have been contacted for comment. In a statement following the GLJ case, he said he could not comment due to the possibility of an appeal to the High Court.
The church said at the time that its strategy for responding to child abuse complaints “will continue to be guided by the unique facts and circumstances of each case”.
‘While our client would normally wish to assist the media, it is inappropriate to make any further representations while the time limit for bringing the case to the High Court has not yet expired,’ church lawyers said in June.