Fees Fear in Abuse Cases|
By Nigel Hunt
The Advertiser [Australia]
January 29, 2006
THE Catholic Church has moved to assure victims of sexual abuse their legal fees will continue to be paid following confusion created by a new policy document.
Catholic diocese of Adelaide Director of Professional Standards Sue Cain yesterday said there would be no change to the existing system under which cases were assessed individually and all legal fees paid "in many cases".
This was despite a revised Towards Healing principles and procedures guidelines document provided to lawyers representing abuse victims stating otherwise.
The document says "as support persons are not remunerated for their role in the process, no legal fees are payable to support persons who are legal practitioners".
This statement has never been made in any previous policy documents for the Towards Healing program.
The revised document has sparked uproar from abuse victims and lawyers, who say it signals a change in church policy on paying legal fees.
Abuse lawyers say many victims use their lawyer as their "support person" throughout the process and their fees have been paid by the church at the end of the mediation.
"It should never have got to this point; nothing has changed," Ms Cain said yesterday.
"I can give an assurance lawyers' fees for attending facilitation meetings and providing other services will be negotiated, as they always have been.
"They have never been paid for acting solely as a support person where they don't provide advice."
Ms Cain said she believed the confusion had arisen because the previous policy documents did not outline this.
"There has been some confusion interstate, that's why it has been included," she said.
"There wasn't that guideline before. It hasn't changed, it's been provided for clarity."
Lawyer Susan Litchfield said yesterday if the policy had changed it would have placed victims at a disadvantage and it appeared the church was trying to get victims to sign away their rights without the benefit of legal advice.
"The church is saying nothing has changed, but clearly the ground rules have shifted," she said.
"If they felt the need to put out a new policy paper with this statement in it, then clearly ground rules have changed in relation to fee payment.
"Not only is it contrary to the theme of the whole process, but it is also counter-productive, with the victims now feeling like they are being boxed into a corner by the church.
"They feel like they are being left with little choice but to accept what is offered which, without proper representation, may be less than they deserve.
"In the majority of cases, these people cannot afford their own lawyers, and it's not as if the amounts being offered enable the victims to fund their legal representation."
Abuse victim Peter, who was molested by a Rostrevor College Brother in 1960, said yesterday he could not afford to pay for a lawyer.
"It was hard enough for me to come forward last year after all this time and start this process," he said.
"Now I have been told the church will not pay for me to have a lawyer present at the meetings with the mediator.
"Am I meant to now go through this traumatic process not knowing if what I reveal or may agree to is the right thing to do?"
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