Church’s Appeal Loss Paves Way for Abuse Survivors to Sue
December 16, 2020
The Catholic Church has failed in its appeal over a compensation payout to a sexual abuse survivor, and now faces the prospect of being sued by hundreds of other victims who received meagre payments in exchange for their silence.
A former altar boy known as WCB was in 1996 paid $32,500 by the church after he was repeatedly abused by Warragul priest Daniel Hourigan between 1977 and 1980.
WCB’s lawyers say he felt insulted by that payment given the horrific abuse he suffered from when he was 12 and the effect it had on his life.
The Supreme Court this year overturned the deed of release, which allowed the Gippsland man to sue the church for damages.
The church appealed against that decision but the Court of Appeal on Friday dismissed the challenge and found in WCB’s favour. Appeals judges David Beach, Stephen Kaye and Robert Osborn found the 1996 payment was a “very modest one” and not commensurate “for the wrong done to [WCB]”.
“In those circumstances, and notwithstanding the difficulties created by the elapse of time, it is, in our view, very plainly just and reasonable to set aside the deed,” the appeals judges wrote.
“Indeed, it would positively be unjust and unreasonable not to do so.”
|Paedophile priest Daniel Hourigan.|
The Court of Appeal’s ruling means WCB can now sue the church for compensation. His lawyers hope the case goes to trial in the first half of next year.
The ruling is also expected to encourage other abuse victims who received capped compensation payments in the 1990s – such as under the church’s Melbourne Response scheme – to sue the church.
WCB’s lawyer, Laird Macdonald, said his firm Rightside Legal estimated there were hundreds of abuse victims who could now consider putting aside past payments and sue the church for adequate compensation.
“It is a watershed moment for them because, like my client, so many of them have been locked out of getting fair compensation because of the miserable amounts that were doled out by the church in the ’90s,” he said.
“This decision should stand as an example to abuse survivors that the the days of the church having legal supremacy and just dominating abuse survivors is just over.”
Mr Macdonald said WCB was “massively relieved” given his past disappointments when dealing with the church. The church had previously denied WCB was abused even though Hourigan admitted doing so before he died. The church had never apologised to WCB.
“He has dealt with the church for decades and more often that not he got the rough end of the stick,” Mr Macdonald said.
Hourigan was facing criminal charges related to offending against several children when he died in 1995.
Last year the Victorian government passed a law allowing courts to set aside a past deed of release or court judgment relating to child abuse.
Mr Macdonald said the courts’ recent rulings upheld the spirit of the law changes, which were aimed at “giving this community of survivors a fair go at compensation”.
In a statement, the Diocese of Sale said it would consider the court’s findings. The church would have to go to the High Court to lodge another appeal.
The diocese’s Bishop Gregory Bennet said he acknowledged “the enduring trauma experienced by victims of child abuse through the Catholic Church over many years”.
“The Catholic Church in Australia, and specifically here in the Sale Diocese, has been working assiduously to ensure that our schools and parishes are safe places, where children and vulnerable people are protected and encouraged to flourish,” he said.
“On behalf of the Diocese of Sale and all clergy and staff working here, I offer our support, prayers and absolute commitment to work together for the best outcomes for the survivors of abuse.”