‘We will die first’ – religious abuse survivors speak up after exclusion from government payouts

Stuff [Wellington, New Zealand]

August 11, 2022

By Steve Kilgallon

Some sexual abuse survivors fear they may die before receiving any compensation after the government excluded them from a scheme to make rapid payouts to elderly and terminally-ill survivors.

Public Services Minister Chris Hipkins has revealed plans to cut a 3000-strong waiting list of abuse claimants of abuse in state care – such as children’s homes – by making “rapid payments”. Survivors of abuse in religious settings, such as Catholic schools, the Salvation Army and the Exclusive Brethren are not included.

The announcement is a response to recommendations from the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care, which is due to deliver its final report next June.

Hipkins announced the government would produce plans by October for rapid payments to elderly and terminally ill claimants, as well as setting up a new listening service and working on a national apology to survivors. He said faster payment options “shouldn’t wait” for the Commission’s proposed national survivor-focused compensation scheme, Puretumu Torowhanui, to be established.

But with the exclusion of religious survivors, that scheme may come too late for some.

One survivor, now 80, who was abused by a Catholic priest in Dunedin in the 1950s, said: “If they leave it much longer, I won’t be on the planet. I would hope my children would see something from my whole sorry story.

“The Catholic church won’t voluntarily start writing cheques – the government has to force them to do it. The government has a responsibility to keep them honest. The only solution to this is for the state to do the job that people asked them to do at the Royal Commission.”

He said he had no faith in the church and wanted his claim process “done formally” by the government.

Albert Lewis (not his real name) is 84, and was abused at the Catholic Silverstream College, Wellington, in the 1950s. He has rejected repeated offers of $5000 compensation from the Marist Fathers. He too said it was time for the government to step in. “Survivors need some assistance to get payments – we are bad negotiators because we haven’t got the confidence to take the initiative … the government is much more powerful, and they would make [the church] and groups like the Salvation Army stand to attention and take notice.”

Jan Lowe, who was abused in Salvation Army children’s homes and led a group of 45 Salvation Army survivors in a long and frustrating class action, is now 74 years old.

She said the Army had failed to engage and listen, to apologise or to “put things right” and paid out minimal compensation.

In a statement, Hipkins said the government agreed that the new redress scheme would handle both state and religious claimants, “but for now, faith-based institutions provide their own claims and redress processes.”

The rapid payment work was focused on the two agencies with big waiting lists – the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Education.

Faith-based institutions could “often settle claims more quickly” than the agencies and survivors could continue to use that system until the new one was established, Hipkins said.

Liz Tonks, from the campaign group the Network of Survivors of Faith-Based Abuse and their Supporters, said the announcement showed Hipkins wasn’t across the issues.

Survivors had been clear about how traumatic it was to return to the institutions that abused them to seek redress. “Many others have been silent because they could not approach their perpetrating institution. They will stay silent.”

The Royal Commission had signalled that all survivors should be treated the same in the new claims mechanism, Tonks said. It had also suggested that the religious institutions should be compelled to contribute to it financially but Hipkins was ignoring the tenor of its recommendations.

The Network also pointed to system gaps with bodies like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Exclusive Brethren having no formal settlement process, and no process in place for defunct groups, like the Centrepoint cult in Auckland. The new plans also didn’t cater for those who had been forced into small payouts but now wanted to negotiate a fairer deal.

Hipkins said it was up to church groups if they wanted to “introduce faster payment processes”.

Dave Mullin, who leads Te Rōpū Tautoko, the Catholic church group which deals with the Commission and the Crown Response Unit, said they were studying the Cabinet paper that detailed Hipkins’ announcement closely.

Mullin said the paper was largely focused on state redress: “We are seeking clarity from Government officials on how and when matters of faith-based redress will be incorporated into this process, and we look forward to engaging in the work.

“Meanwhile, the church asks survivors who, due to serious ill-health or age, may not be able to engage with the proposed independent redress system, to approach the Church’s National Office for Professional Standards.”