Push to widen sex abuse inquiry
23rd April 2012
Updated 23rd April 2012
THE state government has been urged to widen the inquiry into sex abuse by priests to consider how to make it easier for victims to sue the Catholic Church.
Premier Ted Baillieu last week announced that a parliamentary committee would investigate the handling of the criminal abuse of children in churches and other organisations.
However, the inquiry's terms of reference do not cover the church's immunity from civil lawsuits for past sexual abuse.
Angela Sdrinis, a partner at Ryan Carlisle Thomas Lawyers, said the committee should consider making a recommendation to Parliament for legislation to deal with the issue.
While priests can be sued individually, the High Court in 2007 upheld a ruling that the Catholic Church's property trust - its only legal entity - could not be held liable for the actions of priests. Ms Sdrinis said the decision had been used successfully by the Catholic Church and the Uniting Church in Victoria, making it difficult for abuse victims to claim compensation.
''I've stopped issuing [claims] because there's no point,'' she said. ''We have to settle cases for less than they would be worth because of this defence.''
The call for a change to the law has been backed by a man who was sexually abused as a 10-year-old by Christian Brother Keith Weston at St Joseph's College in Pascoe Vale. Weston pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual assault in the County Court in 2004. But at 81, and suffering prostate cancer and dementia, he was given a suspended sentence.
The victim, who wishes to remain anonymous, reached a settlement with the Christian Brothers and has been involved in negotiations on behalf of other victims, but said the prospect of future victims receiving greater sums of compensation was not the issue.
''[Compensation] is absolutely nothing in the context of people's whole lives which are blighted by this … These kind of tokenistic settlements are in a way an insult to people.'' He said removing the church's legal immunity would create an incentive for it to prevent systemic sexual abuse in future.
''If the church were a body at law which could be sued and if it were forced to treat its clerical members as employees for which it had responsibility, it would very quickly put in place systems and structures that limited its exposure by controlling the behaviour of clerics,'' the victim said.
In New South Wales, Greens MP David Shoebridge will release a report this week on a proposed amendment to state law to make it possible for abuse victims to claim damages from funds held by the Catholic Church's property trust.
Ms Sdrinis said any amendments to laws in NSW and Victoria would not ''open the floodgates'' for lawsuits against the church because there were other legal defences on which it could rely, including a statute of limitations that rendered many abuse claims ''out of time''. She said the issue of whether priests were employees of the church - which would make it vicariously liable for their conduct - was also still unsettled in Australia.