Australia High Court confirms families of church abuse victims may seek compensation

Jurist [Pittsburgh PA]

February 11, 2024

By Charlotte Pye

The High Court of Australia dismissed the Catholic Church’s bid to avoid paying damages to the father of a choirboy allegedly sexually abused by Cardinal Goerge Pell. The landmark decision confirms the decision of the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal that victims’ families may seek compensation as secondary victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The Thursday ruling concerned RWQ  v Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne & Ors [2022] VSC 483, a case involving a father who filed a claim against the Archdiocese for the mental harm suffered as a result of being informed of the alleged sexual abuse of his late son by Cardinal Pell.

In August 2022, the Victorian Supreme Court considered whether the father of the alleged victim could bring a claim for injuries suffered as a secondary victim of the abuse his late son had suffered.  It was held that the father’s claim was one included in a s4(2) Legal Identify of Defendants (Organisational Child Abuse) Act 2018 claim “founded on or arising from child abuse.” The Archdiocese then appealed the court’s decision to the Victorian Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, which was rejected. In August 2023, the Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed the previous judgment which held the Act applied to RWQ’s case.

The church then filed for appeal to the High Court of the judgement handed down on 25 August 2023. The court refused the church’s application for special leave to appeal the decision of the Court of Appeal upon the finding of “insufficient prospects of success to warrant a grant of special leave to appeal.” The decision upholds the original judgment of the Court of Appeal, confirming the extension of liability to secondary victims of child sexual abuse.

This means that family members, friends, or other members connected to survivors may be entitled to pursue civil cases for psychological harm ‘founded on or arising from child abuse.’

Shine Lawyers’ chief legal officer Lisa Flynn commented on the decision and described it as a “monumental outcome” for victim-survivors, families and loved ones.

“When a child is sexually abused, their whole family suffers as they grapple with the resulting damage including new family dynamics, changed behaviours, substance abuse and a life derailed as a result of these heinous crimes,” said Flynn.

“The highest court in the country has today affirmed the church can be held liable for that suffering.”

The father’s claim against the church will now continue progressing through Victoria’s Supreme Court.