Perth Catholic Archbishop Timothy Costelloe in heated exchange over handling of child sex cases

The Australian [Surry Hills, Australia]

September 11, 2023

By Paul Garvey

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Perth has defended the church’s handling of child sexual abuse compensation claims, during an at-times heated appearance before a West Australian parliamentary inquiry.

The Most Reverend Timothy Costelloe on Monday said he rejected any suggestion the church was trying to avoid taking responsibility for historical child sex abuses or did not take such complaints seriously.

Under intense questioning from Labor MP Dave Kelly over the church’s handling of complaints, Archbishop Costelloe said he took full responsibility for the areas for which he was rightly responsible and did his best to ensure that those who had been hurt by other agencies in the church were referred to the ­correct people.

Archbishop Costelloe appeared as a witness to the WA parliamentary inquiry into the options available to survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

The inquiry is examining how the WA legal system has performed in the five years since a statute of limitations on compensation claims was lifted, a move that has sparked a wave of civil litigation against various churches and religious organisations.

Mr Kelly cited pastoral letters written by the Archbishop which he said portrayed Archbishop Costelloe as “the man that’s in control” and who was taking action on and responsibility for the child sexual abuse compensation claims.

Mr Kelly said the letters contrasted with the Archbishop’s comments that the Perth diocese did not have any responsibility for, or influence over, claims lodged against other dioceses or bodies linked to the church.

Archbishop Costelloe said the church’s response was in line with the recommendations put forward by the 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“One of the key recommendations of the royal commission was that the proper responsible authority, who should be the respondent for these matters, be identified and publicly identified,” he said.

“I thought that was what we’re here to talk about. Apparently not.”

He said the church was determined to do everything it could to not re-traumatise people who brought claims against it.

Instead, he did not want to give “false hope” to survivors who contacted the diocese with complaints relating to other parts of the church that the diocese had no authority over.

“I reject the suggestion that I am being dishonest or insincere in anything I’ve said about my commitment to this issue. But I belong to the church and must operate within the reality of the church,” he said.

“We may or may not like the reality of the way the church is structured. I can’t change it. I have to operate within it. I’m doing that to the best of my ­ability.”

He said the church would support any recommendations from the inquiry that would help lead to a faster resolution of child sex abuse claims.

Since WA lifted the time limits on historical abuse claims in 2018, the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth – which Archbishop Costelloe oversees – has received 36 civil claims. Of those, 19 have been ­settled at a total cost of just under $10.5m.

A submission to the inquiry from the Catholic Diocese of Bunbury said the 2018 changes had caused “significant re-traumatisation” for survivors who it said were being “exploited” by lawyers.

“It is the experience of the Diocese that some law firms systematically seek to harvest survivors region by region, re-traumatising them,” the submission said.

It said survivors were often given excessive promises of compensation, noting one case in which a survivor claimed $4.57m but ultimately settled for $205,000. Lawyers, the diocese said, were charging “exorbitant and scandalous commissions” of up to 30 per cent of any settlement proceeds.

 SENIOR REPORTER Paul Garvey has been a reporter in Perth and Hong Kong for more than 14 years.