The Age [Melbourne, Australia]
July 31, 2022
By Cameron Houston
For almost 60 years, the Catholic Church delivered millions of dollars in fees to Corrs Chambers Westgarth. The top-tier law firm provided legal advice to embattled archdioceses across Australia as they became engulfed in clerical abuse scandals and accusations of cover-ups.
It was Corrs that helped establish the “Ellis defence” that meant the Catholic Church did not exist as a legal entity because its assets were held inside a trust structure, which insulated it against further claims.
In the civil case against John Ellis, who was sexually abused as a 13-year-old by Father Aidan Duggan, a Corrs solicitor promised in an email to the church’s barristers that they would be “greeted with open arms at the Pearly Gates” for their efforts to thwart future litigants.
But last week, Corrs abruptly severed ties with the church, at a time when the legal industry is jostling to retain younger staff and attract clients expecting greater corporate responsibility.
The firm did not respond to questions from The Age or explain the rationale behind its decision, other than to say it would be “transitioning away from undertaking personal injury work”.
“We will be working with the clients affected by this decision to ensure the orderly transition of such matters to new legal advisers. In particular, the firm is committed to ensuring that we protect the interests of our clients,” a Corrs spokesman said.
A former Corrs employee, who was not authorised to speak publicly, told The Age they thought the decision to end the long association with the church was prompted by the need to protect the firm’s reputation.
“I think many of the partners are increasingly uncomfortable with this kind of work and it’s no longer only about writing fees,” the former Corrs lawyer said.
“The Catholic Church has obviously been hammered by all of these scandals. I’m sure they respect the church’s right to legal representation, but I think they’ve decided to forge a different path. I do think it’s a bit strange that they haven’t articulated the decision.”Advertisement
It comes amid growing tensions within the legal fraternity about the balance between social responsibility and commercial imperatives.
The decision to cut ties with the church has also raised questions about the future of prominent partner Richard Leder, who served articles at the firm in 1988, and has worked on behalf of the Catholic Church for 30 years.
Leder did not return calls from The Age, but several friends and associates confirmed he was considering his options and had already received interest from other firms.
“He’s incredibly well respected. What people are asking is, ‘If you were to go, and the clients are coming with you, then we’d like to have a chat,’ ” one long-term friend said.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne refused to confirm if it would stay with Leder or seek legal representation elsewhere.
“Richard Leder is still a partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth and we have great respect for him and his team. We are working through the transition process,” a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said.
“Our utmost goal now is to ensure that this decision, and the transition, has no impact on survivors.”
Leder played a key role in developing the legal framework around the archdiocese’s compensation scheme known as the Melbourne Response, which was introduced by former archbishop of Melbourne George Pell in 1996.
Under the scheme, payments were capped at $50,000, later raised to $75,000, but it required victims to sign a deed of settlement that waived their right to take civil action against the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Leder defended the Melbourne Response when he appeared before a royal commission in 2014 following repeated claims the church was primarily concerned with avoiding litigation and minimising payouts.
Between 1996 and 2014, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne made $17.2 million in ex gratia payments to 326 victims of clerical abuse under the Melbourne Response, with claimants receiving an average payout of $36,100.
Serial paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell was responsible for the largest number of payouts, to 50 victims, including Emma and Katie Foster for abuse when they attended Oakleigh’s Sacred Heart primary school in the 1980s.
Their mother, Chrissie Foster, accused Corrs of profiting from the misery of victims.
“The Catholic Church has been a cash cow for these guys [Corrs Chambers Westgarth] for more than 50 years. The perpetrators of these crimes were protected by bishops and archbishops and allowed to continue raping children, and then you have a law firm fighting to stop compensation,” she told The Age.
During his appearance before the royal commission in 2014, Leder apologised to Foster and her late husband Anthony over insensitive and incorrect statements he made in correspondence to senior figures in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
In letters submitted to the commission, Leder claimed the abuse suffered by Emma Foster at the hands of O’Donnell was “relatively minor” and doubted the sexual assaults were responsible for her drug problem.
“On the one hand, the link between what appears to be relatively minor abuse and treatment for a heroin addiction might be thought tenuous,” Leder wrote.
In other correspondence, Leder falsely accused the Fosters of kicking Emma out of home.
Chrissie Foster urged the church and its future lawyers to adopt a more compassionate approach in their dealings with victims.
In 2018, the Victorian government dismantled the Ellis defence when it passed legislation to close the legal loophole. Dozens of victims who accepted meagre payouts under the Melbourne Response have since launched fresh litigation.
Lawyer Michael Magazanik, a partner at Rightside Legal, has represented several clients who have successfully sued the church.
“One of Mr Leder’s key accomplishments for his client (Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne) was helping design the Melbourne Response, the scheme that awarded very modest payments to legally powerless victims of clergy sexual abuse. Now, thanks to law reform, there’s a level playing field and the church has to face up to reality. Shock, horror, it can actually be sued. It lost at trial earlier this year for the first time – it had to pay our client more than $2.2 million,” Magazanik said.
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