Catholic church fought sex abuse victim’s claims to deter others, inquiry finds
Royal commission finds church repeatedly failed in its treatment of victims at the hands of its clergy
By Helen Davidson Wednesday 11 February 2015
Cardinal George Pell and the Sydney archdiocese fought a legal claim by an abuse victim, John Ellis, to discourage others from attempting the same, the royal commission has found. It also confirmed the Catholic church repeatedly failed in its dealings with victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy.
In reports released on Wednesday the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse examined the Catholic church’s widely condemned Towards Healing program in dealing with four people, and the handling of complaints by Ellis. All matters had been examined in public hearings over the past two years,
The church spent more than $1m fighting Ellis despite him asking for just a tenth of that amount in settlement, and put him through “distressing and unnecessary cross-examination” and threatened him with legal costs.
“The archdiocese [of Sydney] wrongly concluded that it had never accepted that Father Duggan had abused Mr Ellis,” the report found.
“This conclusion allowed Cardinal Pell to instruct the archdiocese’s lawyers to maintain the non-admission of Mr Ellis’s abuse. The archdiocese accepted the advice of its lawyers to vigorously defend Mr Ellis’s claim.”
The report confirms statements made by Pell who admitted this motivation in a royal commission public hearing in March last year.
“One reason Cardinal Pell decided to accept this advice was to encourage other prospective plaintiffs not to litigate claims of child sexual abuse against the church.”
The other reason found was that Pell believed Ellis was seeking “exorbitant damages” of millions of dollars.
Pell “explicitly endorsed the major strategies of the defence”, the report said:
- “to defend the proposition that the trustees were not liable;
- that, if an offence had been admitted by the archdiocese, the archdiocese could not later deny that it took place;
- to appoint competent lawyers and substantially leave them to run the case or advise the archdiocese on how the case should be run.”
It found the then director of professional standards, John Devoran, “failed” Ellis and “did not make a compassionate response his first priority, as required by the protocols in Towards Healing”. The archdiocese of Sydney also “fundamentally failed” Ellis.
“Some seven months after the fact of Mr Ellis’s abuse had first been put in dispute, the archdiocese, on behalf of the trustees and the archbishop, sought to put itself in a position where it could maintain a non-admission of Mr Ellis’s abuse because this was in the interests of the church in the litigation,” the commission found.
Among its 34 findings into the Ellis case, the royal commission said it agreed with Pell’s statement during hearings that “the archdiocese, the trustees and he as archbishop did not act fairly from a Christian point of view in the conduct of the litigation against Mr Ellis”.
The royal commission’s report into Towards Healing found a raft of “systemic issues” in the Catholic church.
It said it was “surprised” by the Catholic church’s submission which posited the Towards Healing protocol was a position statement and suggestion of “possible steps” in a “flexible” process
“That approach to the interpretation and implementation of Towards Healing serves … to excuse and justify departures from, or actions inconsistent with, the Towards Healing protocol,” the report found.
In its dealings with abuse victim Joan Isaacs – who was abused by Brisbane priest Frank Derriman and engaged with Towards Healing from 1999 – the Catholic church was unfair, mean and broke its own protocols in several instances, the royal commission found.
“In 1998, the church knew that Father Derriman had been convicted of two counts of indecent assault and the church did nothing until September 2011,” the report said.
Derriman was not dismissed from his church role until November 2013, more than four decades after the abuse and 15 years after his conviction.
“It was not compassionate, fair or just” to require Isaacs to sign a deed of release which effectively silenced her from speaking about the settlement she received or make “disparaging remarks” about the church.
“Confidentiality clauses should never have been included in deeds of release relating to child sexual abuse,” the report said.
“I am deeply grateful to the commission for upholding these two findings,” Isaacs said in a statement released to Guardian Australia. “The silencing seriously affected my ability to heal and had a damaging effect on my emotional wellbeing. It brought about nearly 13 years of additional suffering for me as it held the same power over me as my abuser did when I was a child. I am grateful for having been released from the silence clauses. I have no doubt that these silence clauses would still be in effect to this day had it not been for the work of this royal commission.”
Isaacs thanked the commission for “exposing the true dealings” she had with Towards Healing.
“The royal commission has shown that the Catholic church of the archdiocese of Brisbane departed substantially from the undertakings they gave in their Towards Healing document,” she said.
“It is now public knowledge that the Catholic church invited me into a situation which brought me more pain and suffering.”
In dealing with two cases of abuse by Marist Brothers, taken to Towards Healing in 2009 and 2010, the royal commission found numerous failures, including that the provincial, Alex Turton, did not report complaints made against Brother Raymond Foster. Provincial Michael Hill tried to keep matters which surfaced after Foster’s suicide “out of the public eye”.
Hill also did not pass on information to the victim which should have been, including some that the victim had specifically requested.
In another case the report found that if the Marist Brothers taken the correct steps when told a boy had been sexually abused by Brother Ross Murrin at a Cairns college in the early 1980s, subsequent abuse of children by Murrin could have been prevented. Murrin remains a Marist brother despite his eventual conviction and incarceration.
In acting as a as a facilitator in Towards Healing facilitations, the then NSW director of professional standards, Michael Salmon, “raise[d] a real potential for an actual or perceived conflict of interest given that the director is employed by the Catholic Church”, the report found.
Last week a discussion paper on redress called for a $4.38bn national compensation scheme.
• This article was corrected on 11 February 2015 to remove the reference to Michael Salmon now being communications manager for the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. This was an error, the council’s Michael Salmon is a different man with the same name.
Celibacy and child abuse: why is the Catholic church pre-empting the royal commission?
It’s a mistake for the Catholic church to get into debates about its folk devils. It should let the royal commission lead on the question of celibacy and child abuse
Adam Brereton Friday 12 December 2014 00.54 EST
From the link: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/12/celibacy-and-child-abuse-why-is-the-catholic-church-pre-empting-the-royal-commission
The representative of the Australian Catholic church to the royal commission into child abuse has claimed that “obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to [child] abuse in some circumstances”.
In their 2014 activity report the Truth Justice and Healing Council also recommended that priests undergo “Ongoing training and development, including psycho-sexual development”.
This has been leapt upon as an admission that the church’s regime of sexual discipline for clergy is broken at best, and at worst, is a factor in producing paedophiles.
“By publicly acknowledging the potential role of celibacy in this way, the report sets an international precedent,” The Australian’s Dan Box reported.
It’s not quite as simple as that. The council’s Francis Sullivan told Guardian Australia that their statement on celibacy – one highly-qualified line in the whole report – was “not research that we’ve done that we’ve now come to an opinion on”.
It was merely the council noting that celibacy had been raised by witnesses and victims at the commission, and by the commissioners themselves.
“If we hadn’t alluded to the potential influence of celibacy in an activity report, we would have been criticised for the glaring obvious – in some people’s eyes,” he said.
“More work needs to be done to substantiate the claim”.
He also acknowledged that many priests might struggle to keep their vow and will need assistance. Obviously a breakdown in celibacy doesn’t always mean abuse. Priests in relationships – some which result in children, then kept secret – are no uncommon occurrence.
Celibacy, Sullivan says, is an important issue for the church to deal with.
It’s understandable that much of the nuance might be lost given the report’s contradiction of previous pig-headed statements from Archbishop Denis Hart and others about celibacy in the past
Nevertheless, Box’s story “took off like a fire in dry grass”.
The inclusion of the celibacy line in their activity report is, in my view, a mistake on the part of the council. The royal commission itself has not reported on the issue, except to record some victims’ opinions in an appendix to their interim report.
Sullivan thinks this is “neither here nor there” but the hard work of collating the best academic research on the pathologies of abuse is still being done.
To go out in front of the commission and “put celibacy on the table”, as the council has done, has pre-empted the commission’s own findings into the issue. Sullivan knows it’s among the most contentious and politically sensitive issues in the child abuse debate.
He also acknowledged that “it’s an extraordinarily minor element of the report”, compared to broader discussions of closed clerical culture, obedience, professional standards and the like.
Everyone has an opinion on whether celibacy contributes to clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse: theologians, clergy, journalists, academics, and the victims themselves. Often views on celibacy are a way of leading into a speaker’s politics regarding the church more broadly, and should accordingly be treated with scepticism.
None of this is to say that celibacy doesn’t lead to abuse. Perhaps it does. But our best hope is for the commission’s researchers and experts to go through the leading academic research and the evidence of those who survived abuse, and to come to the most rigorous conclusion possible.
When I put to him that the council would prefer to talk about celibacy than more substantive issues of justice, Sullivan disagreed. It’s not an attempt “to get a conversation going about the dreaded perpetrators and not the systemic problems in the Catholic church”.
If it’s not a strategy, then it’s an oversight – one that will further contribute to the “trust deficit” Sullivan acknowledges is a feature of church life he “fronts every day”. It raises suspicion of celibate clergy in a way that implies causation when the commission itself has not come to that conclusion.
The ultimate purpose of the various inquiries into child abuse will be to inform a post-commission settlement, and the report deals extensively with what the Catholic church’s contribution to that settlement will look like.
Every time the church buys into discussions about the folk devils of celibacy and the seal of the confessional, making them first-order issues before the evidence says they’re first-order issues, the much more important question is obscured. Namely, what financial and legal mechanisms must be established to secure justice for victims?
The appearances of Cardinal George Pell and others at the commission this year were a disgrace. Catholic clergy continue to be evasive, rude, dishonest and callous in the witness box. Now that Pell has departed for Rome, there is some clear air to talk about justice.
Sullivan’s council is making an effort to engage constructively in this project. But who’s listening? The council has submitted to the inquiry at every stage and on every issue – something state governments and other organisations haven’t done.
Unless we have no faith in the commission’s processes at all, relentless cynicism of the church and Sullivan’s council is increasingly becoming an ungenerous and unproductive stance to take.
What is the church actually putting forward at this stage, beyond the celibacy question? The report proposes that organisations at fault pay into a national redress scheme, with a levy on public liability insurance to compensate victims of organisations that no longer exist. Payments from the scheme would be capped – one of the criticisms of the failed Catholic church victims’ scheme, Towards Healing.
Any cap would take place “in line with community standards”. I would imagine most members of the community would struggle to agree on what the upper limit should be. Determining one will be largely out of the church’s hands anyway.
Is their proposed scheme the best possible option, or is it a second-rate compromise designed to head off a full-blown raid of clergy abuse survivors on the church’s finances? Parishes in the US are already going bankrupt under the weight of child abuse payouts. A state-by-state statutory redefinition of vicarious liability laws, to make the church responsible for clergy abuse even where no negligence has occurred, is the gold standard. This, and a loosening of the statute of limitations for abuse and the like, could be financially disastrous for the church.
Sullivan denies that the church pursues “what might appear to be prima facie a popular policy” at the expense of a more far-reaching response like this.
But it’s hard to avoid the comments of leading Catholic lawyer Fr Frank Brennan, who has raised the spectre of a legal challenge if any future redefinition of vicarious liability goes ahead: “Ultimately, this will be a matter for the High Court, and not for [commissioner] Justice McClellan.”
It’s also hard to discount that Sullivan’s official position on vicarious liability and other associated issues is to “leave it for the courts”. This could amount to a death sentence for any state-by-state statutory scheme if the high court rules conservatively. That would be a waste of large amounts of political capital, effort and goodwill.
In any case, the commission, as the first rigorous state-run inquiry into institutional abuse in the world, has a duty to get it right. Sullivan and his council are under intense scrutiny, but nonetheless have pledged to contribute constructively to the commission’s work.
“[T]he Catholic Church needs to be more proactive, more on the front foot, more unashamedly committed to truth, justice, transparency and compassion, regardless of what the royal commission might recommend,” Brennan wrote after the release of the commission’s interim report.
Perhaps this is the case. But given the commission is a more rigorous and independent body than the church, it would be best to let it rule on the most contentious issues first.