Welcome to Another Commentary from Catholica Australia

By Angela Sdrinis
July 12, 2008

Victims' Lawyer argues an apology from the Pope is an empty gesture…

Thousands of pilgrims will line Sydney Harbour on July 17 to watch the Pope arrive for World Youth Day. Look past the flotilla and the flags of the world display, and you will catch a glimpse of the latest leg of the Pope's world apology tour.

Pope Benedict

On a recent visit to the US, Pope Benedict said sorry to people who had been sexually abused by Catholic priests. His contrition followed payouts of more than $2 billion to these victims.

Australian abuse victims and their families are anticipating another apology in Sydney — but on our shores the Pope's words will ring hollow.

The highest ranked Catholic in Australia has been accused of misleading a victim of clerical sexual abuse. ABC's Lateline this week revealed Cardinal George Pell informed abuse victim Anthony Jones that his claim of aggravated sexual assault by Father Terence Goodall had not been substantiated by a church investigator, and that there had been no other complaint of sexual assault against the priest.

It appears however, that Cardinal Pell knew of one other complaint against Goodall. It is alleged he had written to the two victims on the same day, according to Lateline.

Although Goodall was later revealed as a serial offender, the rejected victim Jones was never informed.

Cardinal Pell says his letter to the victim was "badly worded and a mistake" — not a cover-up. But history tells us the church will go a long way to avoid responsibility for people abused by priests.

The attempts of the Church in Australia

to deny victims justice in the courts — the "John Ellis case"…

The Catholic Church in this country has denied victims justice in the courts, hiding behind a corporate veil that makes it immune from many legal actions over historical sexual abuse. A shameful saga began in 2004, when former parishioner John Ellis made a claim against Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, and the trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Sydney Archdiocese.

Mr Ellis alleged that he was sexually assaulted by an assistant priest at Bass Hill parish between 1974 and 1979. The trial judge found no basis for action against Cardinal Pell, because he was not the Archbishop of Sydney at the time of the abuse.

However, the judge ruled the trustees of the Roman Catholic Church could be sued, and granted Mr Ellis extra time to pursue his claim. The trustees of the Roman Catholic Church appealed against the decision.

They argued that there was no legal entity that could be sued by Mr Ellis. The church took this action to avoid accountability, even though it conceded that the evidence filed by Mr Ellis established an arguable case. The church argued that as the trustees played no role in the oversight or appointment of priests, they could not be sued for clerical sexual abuse. The church also argued that as there was no other legal entity that could be sued, Mr Ellis's claim should be dismissed. This argument was upheld by the NSW Court of Appeal.

Church now immune from litigation in many cases of abuse…

Mr Ellis then went to the High Court.

His counsel argued: "If the Court of Appeal's decision is correct, then the Roman Catholic Church in NSW has so structured itself as to be immune from suit, other than in respect of strictly property matters, for all claims of abuse, neglect or negligence, including claims against teachers in parochial schools. That immunity, they say, extends to the present day in respect of the parochial duties of priests. We say such an immunity would be an outrage to any reasonable sense of justice."

Last November, the High Court agreed with the Catholic Church and refused special leave to appeal.

The legal position is now clear, and the church in NSW — and by extension Victoria — is immune from litigation in many cases of sexual abuse.

This is not a matter of historic record. This is the Catholic Church in 2008 using legal devices to avoid responsibility in court for parishioners raped, sodomised or otherwise abused in its "care".

James Hardie was pilloried when it incorporated offshore to dispose of asbestos claims. The Catholic Church, which the community expects to be a model of virtue, is hiding behind a similar legal device.

Cardinal Pell needs to be called to account and asked…

Cardinal Pell should be asked exactly who instructed the church's lawyers to raise these technical legal defences in circumstances surely more morally reprehensible than James Hardie's conduct. This litigation shows up any apology by the Pope to victims of sexual abuse as meaningless, hypocritical rhetoric.

The Catholic Church has set up its own commissions, such as "Towards Healing", to deal with complaints of sexual abuse. The purpose is to run private hearings with a view to minimising payment to victims. It protects perpetrators and the Catholic Church brand.

For example, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has its own compensation panel, which allows for maximum payments to victims of $55,000 — less than what might sometimes be awarded in the courts. It is no substitute for accountability.

Sadly, if claimants dare to go court, the church argues the "Ellis defence", as the Marist Brothers are in many cases before the ACT Supreme Court.

All Australians should be uncomfortable with the notion that the quality of justice for rape victims should be dependent on the rapists' employer. So this World Youth Day, as the Pope arrives, spare a thought for victims of clerical sexual abuse, denied moral justice by the Catholic Church.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.