The Age [Melbourne, Australia]
March 15, 2023
By Emily Woods
Melbourne’s Catholic archbishop has asked a court to reduce a former altar boy’s almost $2 million sexual abuse payout as some injuries were caused outside of a paedophile priest’s horrific assaults.
Archbishop Peter Comensoli has launched an appeal of a Supreme Court judge’s decision to award $1.9 million in damages to one of former priest Desmond Gannon’s victims, after he and the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne were found to be vicariously liable for the abuse.
Gannon sexually assaulted the man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, three times between 1968 and 1970 while the victim was an altar boy and pupil at a Catholic primary school in regional Victoria.
The victim said he felt the priest had “murdered” him, and the little boy he used to be was gone forever.
On one occasion, Gannon drove the boy out to a remote area where he molested and raped him. He was terrified Gannon would get a shovel, kill him and bury him. The former priest was sentenced for the abuse in 2009 and died in 2015.
The man said the abuse had affected his entire life. He suffered poor mental health, contemplated suicide and abused alcohol to numb his pain.
Justice Andrew Keogh found Gannon’s abuse was “horrific” and involved “a physically painful and abhorrent assault on a young child by an adult in a position of almost absolute power and authority”.
He ordered $1,908,647 be paid to the victim, including $1.5 million for economic loss, $525,000 for general damages and $15,000 for future treatment expenses, and minus $131,353 already paid to him through the church’s Melbourne Response scheme to handle sex abuse claims.
The archbishop appealed the June 2022 payout, with his lawyers telling the Court of Appeal on Wednesday that it should be reduced because some of the victim’s injuries were caused by factors separate from the abuse.
“We are not here to submit that the effects of that abuse are not profound, and that the impact on the respondent has not been destructive, or indeed, that the impact has not and is not lifelong,” barrister John Rush, KC, told the court.
“But we obviously do contend that the award of $525,000 for pain and suffering was manifestly excessive.”
He claimed some of the man’s psychological, physical and economic injuries were caused by an unstable upbringing, including moving houses as a child, his parents’ separation and a culture of drinking with his peers.
Rush said the judge’s damages did not take this evidence into account. He argued the amount should be further reduced to avoid double-dipping, as the victim was paid a disability pension for some years.
The victim’s barrister, Fiona McLeod, SC, said Keogh’s damages were fair and proportionate to the horrific abuse suffered by her client, which continued to have a “catastrophic” impact on all aspects of his life.
“This court should not second guess the learned trial judge,” McLeod said.
She said the disability pension issue was not determined by Keogh, so could not be raised in an appellant court.
Justices David Beach, Richard Niall and Stephen Kaye reserved their decision to a later date.