October 2, 2020
By Jolyon Attwooll
A new Supreme Court decision could give survivors of historical sexual abuse in Ballarat a second chance to seek fair compensation from the Catholic Church.
The case related to a former altar boy abused by paedophile priest Daniel Hourigan in Gippsland between 1977 and 1980.
On Tuesday, Justice Andrew Keogh overturned the original settlement deed the Diocese of Sale had given to the victim, known as WCB.
Describing the abuse as “horrendous”, Justice Keogh said the agreement was “not a reasonable assessment of the plaintiff’s loss and damage in 1996, or adequate compensation by today’s standards.”
The decision overturns the original deed, which gave $32,500 to the victim, in exchange for his legal rights, as well as obliging him to remain silent about the deal.
Hourigan died in 1995.
It is the believed to be the first time such a settlement with the Catholic Church has been set aside.
One Ballarat survivor, who asked to be referred to by his pseudonym of “Moth” as current legislation prevents survivors from talking publicly, welcomed the Supreme Court judgement.
“It’s very exciting, it’s a great thing the courts have seen the deed was unjust.
“I am doing the same thing myself. It’s very promising for people like me who are already in the legal system trying to get unjust deeds overturned.”
‘Moth’ signed his first agreement in 1997.
He told The Courier he was cautious about giving details of the amount of compensation he received but said it was a very small sum and his options were limited at the time. “You couldn’t do anything about it back in those days,” he said.
“They approached me and offered me money so what do you do? You just take the money because there were no other legal processes.”
“If you tried arguing with them over money, they just said ‘Well, who are you going to sue?'”
In recent years, several legal developments have given more power to survivors seeking fair compensation for their abuse.
The so-called Ellis Defence, which meant the Catholic Church could not be sued, has now been scrapped, as has a time limit on bringing personal injury cases.
This latest Supreme Court decision was the first to relate to new legislation introduced last year, allowing courts to set aside previous judgements if they were deemed unfair.
‘Moth’ said: “Probably most of the victims of clergy sex abuse will be signed up in one way or another. They approached me, I didn’t even approach them – so they were trying to get their bases well and truly covered.”
“It will give [Ballarat survivors] the opportunity to do something about it or encourage them, because they’ve seen a deed of release be overturned.”
A lawyer from the firm who represented the victim in court said the ruling had wide implications for survivors in Ballarat. Rightside Legal partner Grace Wilson said: “Daniel Hourigan was Gippsland’s version of Gerard Ridsdale – a paedophile priest the Church knew about and shuffled from place to place.”
She said many victims in Ballarat and elsewhere had given up their rights for “miserable, insulting sums”.
“But now the power has shifted. The law is with survivors. Unfair and inadequate settlements can be overturned. The Church can be held to account.”
Ms Wilson described the legal proceedings leading up to the overturning of the deed as “very hard fought”.
“I think good Catholics across the country would be appalled if they knew how much time and energy and money the Church spent trying to defend their unfair past deed.”
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