Judge rules Catholic Church vicariously liable for Ballarat paedophile priest Bryan Coffey’s abuse 50 years ago

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

December 27, 2022

By Elizabeth Byrne

A man has successfully sued the Catholic Church after a court found it had vicarious liability for sexual abuse he says he suffered from a notorious priest 50 years ago.

Key points:

  • The Catholic Church has been found liable for its priest’s abuse of a five-year-old boy in 1971
  • The ruling is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia
  • Other victims of the priest were compensated out of court this year

The Victorian man’s lawyers believe it is the first such ruling in Australia.

Father Bryan Coffey was convicted in the Ballarat County Court in February 1999 of multiple counts of sexual assault against other children, and was given a three-year suspended sentence.

He died in 2013.

The man told the Victorian Supreme Court that Coffey had sexually abused him at his parent’s Port Fairy home on two occasions in 1971, when the assistant priest was visiting.

The victim was five years old at the time.

He claimed damages for pain and suffering, lost earnings, medical expenses, exemplary damages and aggravated damages, related to the priest’s position in the community, and the fact that gave him access to his home to commit the offences.

The court heard the man’s life had been difficult and he had problems at school, where he says a female teacher was physically abusive to him. Both of his parents were killed in an accident when he was a young man.

He said he had long suffered bouts of depression, which he attributed to the abuse

However, Justice John Forrest found his explanation unconvincing.

He pointed to the man’s earlier attempt to seek redress from the church over his claim about his former female teacher.

“It is extraordinary that, in the process of making the school abuse complaint to a Catholic redress body — with the help of two firms of solicitors — that [the man] did not mention Coffey’s actions,” Justice Forrest said.

The man had also not told his psychologists over many years.

But Justice Forrest found that, despite the flaws in the man’s account, the abuse did happen, on the balance of probabilities.

He found the abuse was consistent with what Coffey’s other victims had experienced.

Newspaper ad ‘awakened memories’

A critical part of the case concerned how the legal action began.

The man had made little mention of the incident until he saw an advertisement in a local paper from some Canberra lawyers.

Justice Forrest refused to award damages up until that time, but said he accepted the man had suffered since the memories were reawakened.

“I am satisfied that, once he read the December advertisement, the memories of the Coffey assaults were revived and have since that time played, along with his other issues, a part in the production of his depression and anxiety,” the judge said.

Justice Forrest awarded the man $200,000 in damages for pain and suffering.

But the more significant finding was that the church was liable for aggravated damages, after Coffey’s action.

“I can see no reason why the diocese should not be vicariously liable for such an award given that is relates directly to Coffey’s conduct and is compensatory in nature,” Justice Forrest said.

Lawyer Sangeeta Sharmin, who works for Ken Cush & Associates in Canberra, said the decision was significant.

“It marks for the first time in Australia a decision that exercises attribution of liability to a bishop for the acts of his predatory priest or assistant priest,” Ms Sharmin said.

“Bishops and church leaders can no longer avoid responsibility by using a technical argument that the abuse did not arise from confidence in the clerical collar.”

The court awarded the man an additional $20,000 for aggravated damages and a further $10,000 for future medical costs.