Victims to be able to sue church

by: Phillip Coorey, Jacqueline Maley

VICTIMS of sexual abuse would be able to sue the Catholic Church for compensation as a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse, legal experts say.

And any victim of sexual abuse would be able to give evidence, if they wished.

A discussion paper released late on Monday by the commission secretariat says the commission’s findings ”may extend to ensuring that there are no obstacles to the making of claims and that there is sufficient support for victims of abuse in pursuing those claims”.

“The NSW government is keen to co-operate with the federal government on its royal commission and will consider the consultation paper” … NSW Premier Barry OFarrell. Photo: Dean Osland

Presently, the church is classified as an non-legal entity for the purpose of compensation claims, which means victims cannot sue.

The discussion paper, part of the consultation process to establish the terms of reference, has been sent to all state and territory leaders as well as the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, the Greens and the federal independents.

It allows just one week for submissions with the aim of finalising the terms of reference and other details of the commission by early next month.

The paper also confirms the commission will require several commissioners, take ”years” and involve ”thousands of victims and hundreds of organisations” but victims will not have to wait that long for recompense and justice.

It invites every victim of sexual abuse to give evidence if they so wish, including possibly those who have been paid hush money, and will pass information to police along the way, rather than wait ”years” until the commission has concluded.

”The commission will be able to refer matters to the relevant police authorities. This could be done during the course of the royal commission, but investigation and prosecution would ultimately be a matter for the relevant authorities to pursue.”

It also recommends a time limit for the commission but for it to issue interim reports to governments and institutions ”to ensure that the reforms necessary are identified and considered as soon as possible”.

The commission will investigate all institutions and was sparked by allegations of abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley.

A 2007 NSW Court of Appeal decision found that the church was not a legal entity for the purposes of compensation claims.

But Dr Andrew Morrison, SC, spokesman for Australian Lawyers Alliance, which has long sought the reversal of this loophole, said the discussion paper ”leaves open the possibility of a statutory change” by state governments which would allow victims to sue for civil damages.

It could make the trustees of the church – who preside over millions of dollars worth of property – liable in respect of abuse and negligence by priests and teachers in Catholic organisations.

He said the Sydney Archdiocese should be answerable to legal claims, just as the church is in England and Wales, Ireland and the US.

The paper also wants the commission to sweep away any impediments in any institution to the notification and investigation of abuse. It pressures the states to endorse the commission to make it a joint federal-state royal commission, giving it the ”reach it needs to undertake its important work”.

”To do its job, the commission will need access to information held by state governments so that no individual, institution or organisation can avoid scrutiny if the royal commission considers there is a need for such scrutiny,” it says.

The Premier, Barry O’Farrell, was yet to read the paper but said ”the NSW government is keen to co-operate with the federal government on its royal commission and will consider the consultation paper”.

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