Church stalls review of its controversial Melbourne Response

By Cameron Houston And Chris Vedelago
March 13, 2016

Archbishop Denis Hart had vowed the findings of the review of the Melbourne Response would be released by November 2014. Survivors of clergy abuse are still waiting.
Photo by Ken Irwin

Survivors of clergy abuse have accused the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne of stalling and obfuscation by delaying the release of an independent review of its own controversial compensation scheme.

The review of the Melbourne Response was announced by Archbishop Denis Hart in August 2014 following repeated claims at the royal commission that the church was primarily concerned with avoiding litigation and minimising payouts. 

Archbishop Hart had vowed the findings by retired Federal Court Judge Donnell Ryan, QC, would be released by November 2014 and were expected to recommend a significant increase, or removal, of the $75,000 cap on compensation.

Fairfax Media can reveal that Mr Ryan submitted the review to Archbishop Hart on September 30, 2015, but that the report and its recommendations are yet to be made public.

A spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said an announcement was expected within the next month and "it was decided to wait until all evidence had concluded from the royal commission's investigation into the CAM before any information would be released".

The church's rationale for the delay has been met with scepticism by groups representing victims of clerical abuse.

Helen Last, chief executive of the In Good Faith Foundation, said the most recent review had forced victims to revive horrific memories of their encounters with predatory priests, after enduring similar experiences with parliamentary inquiries and the royal commission.

"As time goes on, there is growing despair that this process has just added more trauma for survivors. It's about time the archbishop stopped putting difficult questions aside and dealt with the findings of this report," she said.

Ms Last said the church had avoided recent attempts by her organisation to discuss the pastoral care requirements of the 440 victims it represents.

The church has been repeatedly urged to reform the Melbourne Response and review the 326 cases it has settled since the scheme was introduced in 1996 by former Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell.

The church paid $17.2 million in ex gratia payments for child sexual abuse claims between 1996 and 2014, which included medical and counselling expenses. Victims have received an average payout of $36,100.

But the cost of administering the Melbourne Response was more than $17 million, which included $7.7 million to Independent Commissioner Peter O'Callaghan, QC, and his staff.

Serial paedophile priest Kevin O'Donnell was responsible for the largest number of payouts, with 50 victims, including Emma and Katie Foster when they attended Oakleigh's Sacred Heart primary school in the 1980s. 

Their parents, Chrissie and Anthony Foster, told the royal commission of their decade-long battle with the church and its lawyers. They pleaded for a more compassionate system that recognises the full extent of the damage.

"Our view is that the Melbourne Response should be re-evaluated to ensure it complies with the legal and moral standards of our society to ensure just compensation and care for all victims," Mrs Foster told the commission.

"To be clear, we think it is appropriate to revisit every previous settlement under the Melbourne Response to make sure proper financial compensation was paid."

The Fosters received $50,000 from church's lawyers in 1998 for the abuse to their eldest daughter, Emma, who took her own life.


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