Victims seek help from NSW attorney general over ‘paltry’ Catholic church abuse payouts

State’s top legal officer is monitoring appeal against a ruling lawyers say has emboldened churches to limit compensation to alleged victims of dead paedophile priests

The New South Wales attorney general, Mark Speakman, says he is monitoring a case being used by the church to pressure survivors into accepting “paltry” compensation offers after his office received complaints from victims and lawyers about their conduct.

Guardian Australia revealed this week that the Catholic church has been pressuring survivors to accept relatively small amounts in cases where paedophile clergy have died or risk having their cases fail in court.

According to victims’ lawyers, the church has been emboldened to take the aggressive stance by a June ruling in the NSW court of appeal, which found it could not have a fair trial because a priest, Father Clarence Anderson, accused of abusing a 14-year-old girl, was dead.

That ruling was made despite clear evidence that the church knew Anderson had abused boys for years, but had done nothing other than moving him between parishes, where he continued to prey on children.

The firm involved in that case, Ken Cush & Associates, is seeking to appeal against the ruling in the high court on Friday.

The conduct of the church and other institutions has prompted a series of complaints to Speakman’s office.

He was approached by a survivor this year who expressed “concerns about the use of permanent stays by institutions in historical child sexual abuse cases in NSW”.

“As a follow-up to my meeting with the victim survivor, and to representations from advocates, the legal profession and academia, I asked the Department of Communities and Justice for further advice on this matter,” Speakman told Guardian Australia.

“I have been advised that the NSW court of appeal decision … is subject to a special leave application to the high court of Australia to be heard on 18 November. I have asked DCJ to monitor the outcome of this application.”

Speakman’s office also received a complaint from Kelso Lawyers, a firm that specialises in historical child abuse compensation claims and has represented thousands of victims.

The complaint pointed to a string of decisions that have permanently halted claims against the Catholic and Anglican churches. Those cases have all cited the deaths of perpetrators or other key figures in deciding that churches are unable to receive a fair trial.

The child abuse royal commission found survivors face huge barriers to coming forward, and that, on average, it takes more than 22 years for a complaint to be made.

That finding and associated recommendations led all Australian jurisdictions to scrap their statute of limitations for such cases, removing any time limit on bringing a claim. The delay also makes it common for clergy to have died by the time a survivor seeks justice.

Kelso Lawyers told Speakman that the decisions meant that, in many cases, survivors could not even have their claims heard by a court.

“The court dismisses the proceedings before the victim even has the chance to put their case in court and fight for justice,” the firm told Speakman. “They are being left without a voice, denied their day in court.”

A Kelso Lawyers partner, Luke Garaty, said his firm, like many others who have spoken to the Guardian, has witnessed a more aggressive approach by the church in negotiations with survivors in such cases.

“We have received offers of settlement in the last few months for several hundred thousand dollars below what was offered to other victims of abuse by the same offenders in the same institutions prior to the permanent stay decisions,” he said.

“Secondary to that (and I suppose a natural consequence of that) is the various Catholic orders are now refusing to pay any compensation, or making extremely paltry offers, in relation to a) dead offenders who they previously accepted liability for and paid respectful compensation in relation to; and b) in relation to dead offenders they were paying out compensation to even before the limitation period was removed.”

The Catholic church has not responded to requests for comment from Guardian Australia on the allegations.

But it said in June that its strategy would “continue to be guided by the unique facts and circumstances of each case”.

“Whilst our client normally desires to assist the media it is inappropriate to make any further statements whilst the time period for applying to the high court has not yet expired,” the church’s lawyers said.


Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp