Supreme Court allows trial into historical child sexual abuse against Diocese of Lismore

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

September 27, 2021

By Miranda Saunders

A woman who has accused a former Lismore priest of sexually abusing her in 1968 has been allowed to have her case heard in the New South Wales Supreme Court.

Key points:

  • The Supreme Court allows the trial to proceed against the Diocese of Lismore
  • A woman has accused the Church of knowing Fr Clarence Anderson sexually abused children
  • The court says the amount of documented evidence shows a fair trial can be held despite Anderson’s death in 1996

The Diocese of Lismore had applied for a permanent stay of proceedings, but that has been refused by Justice Stephen Campbell.

Solicitor Sam Tierney, who is representing the alleged victim, said it was a significant outcome.

“The issue of permanent staying of these types of civil matters is becoming an increasingly common method which is being used by defendants to defeat these types of claims,” he said.

“In this particular case, the judge has found that the circumstances where a plaintiff can bring a proceedings and a trial can proceed in a fair, albeit not perfect fashion, then the plaintiff should be allowed to bring their case before the court.”

Claims diocese breached duty of care

The alleged victim is claiming damages for personal injury.

She has accused Father Clarence Anderson of sexually assaulting her in her family home in 1968 when she was 14 years old.

The claim against the Diocese of Lismore has been brought about on two grounds.

The first is that the diocese breached a duty of care because when the alleged abuse took place, the Catholic Church already knew that Anderson had sexually abused other children and had a tendency to do so again.

The second is that the diocese is vicariously liable for the sexual abuse allegedly committed by the priest against the plaintiff.

In his judgment, Justice Campbell set out claims from five other alleged victims who said they too were repeatedly sexually abused by the priest.

Anderson was ordained in 1963 and spent time in the parishes of Lismore, Kyogle, Tweed Heads and Macksville before his dispensation from the priesthood in 1971.

He died in 1996.Want more local news? Sign up to ABC North Coast’s weekly email newsletter.

A fair trail can proceed

Mr Tierney said despite the accused being unable to answer the allegations, the judge had ruled a fair trial could still take place.

“The judge weighed up on one hand the unavailability of certain potential witnesses who may have since died or be otherwise unavailable, against a range of other evidence presented to the court.

“[These included] documents which tended to indicate that the diocese was well aware of this particular father’s likelihood of offending, and ultimately found that a fair trial would be able to be held even though some witnesses were no longer available.”

Mr Tierney said he hoped this case could help other potential victims come forward.

“I would like to think this judgment will mean that other plaintiffs are more comfortable coming forward, knowing the diocese was well aware of this particular priest over a period of time and would be more comfortable in coming forward.”

The Diocese of Lismore issued a statement, saying: “Unfortunately while the matter is still before the court, the diocese is unable to make any comments.”

The matter is listed for direction on October 1.