The Catholic church is seeking to use using the death of a “prolific paedophile” priest to permanently prevent a dying Indigenous man from seeking justice for alleged abuse suffered on camping trips in rural New South Wales.
Two survivors are suing the church’s Armidale diocese for the alleged abuse by notorious priest David Joseph Perrett during camping trips from an Aboriginal mission in the mid-1970s.
Perrett died in 2020 while awaiting criminal trial for more than 100 offences relating to the abuse of almost 40 young children – including the two plaintiffs now suing the church – in areas spanning Armidale, Walcha, Guyra and the broader New England region from the 1960s to the mid-1990s.
At the time the then bishop of Armidale, Michael Kennedy, said Perrett’s death would bring “significant disappointment” for alleged victims.
“His death means that survivors will not get to see these charges heard in court,” he said in 2020.
The church is now using Perrett’s death in a bid to shut down civil cases brought by the same survivors against the Armidale diocese.
The church argues it cannot get a fair trial against the two survivors’ civil claims because Perrett and other deceased church officials cannot give evidence about whether the abuse occurred, whether there was negligence by the church or whether the camping trips were conducted as part of Perrett’s role with the church, potentially making it vicariously liable for his actions.
The church is making the argument despite allegations it did nothing to investigate Perrett’s actions for decades after it learned he had been convicted and sentenced in 1996 for abusing children in north-west NSW.
The broader use of such tactics, first revealed by Guardian Australia, has prompted widespread criticism due to the church’s role in covering up abuse and delaying justice. Survivors take an average of 22 years to come forward, making the death of perpetrators and witnesses common.
Police investigated the two boys’ allegations and charged Perrett in 2017, three years before he died.
At the time Perrett gave instructions to his defence lawyer denying the allegations that he abused either boy. Those instructions were recorded in a statement and that statement is available to the church to help it defend itself from civil claims.
In a hearing in the NSW supreme court this week, the church claimed that the statement was not enough to enable it to fairly run its defence.
The church first learned that Perrett was convicted of sexual offences against children in the mid-1990s, the court heard, and placed him under “stringent” conditions to protect children in the diocese.
Perrett also confessed to being a paedophile during an exchange with a bishop in 2016, the court heard. Peter Tierney, counsel for the plaintiffs, said that despite this the church did nothing to investigate his past.
“We have this extraordinary declaration by Perrett saying he was no risk in the St Martin de Porres [adult church] community because ‘I am a paedophile,’” Tierney told the court on Wednesday.
“Remarkable in its frankness, but it must be alarming for bishop Kennedy to hear that from this man, in light of what was to come.
“Within a year he’s charged with 11 historic child sexual offences, and no investigation [by the church].”
The church did not approach Perrett after the charges were laid in 2017 to ask for his response to the allegations, despite the reasonable possibility the church would face a civil claim in the future, Tierney said.
But the diocese’s lawyers hit back at the suggestion that it should have taken steps to investigate the allegations prior to Perrett’s death.
It claimed it didn’t know the two plaintiffs were among the almost group of complainants who had gone to police, prompting the charges.
The diocese also claimed it would only have been able to put generalities about the allegations to Perrett for a response and that Perrett would have been highly unlikely to help the church with its investigations while he was defending himself from criminal charges.
The two plaintiffs brought their civil claim against the church after Perrett’s death in 2020.
Court documents allege he was a “prolific paedophile”, that there was a “body of knowledge of Perrett’s proclivities held by a number of boys on the mission” and that “it was foreseeable to the defendant that Perrett could unlawfully sexually assault an Aboriginal child from the mission”.
The church says the filing of the claim after Perrett’s death has denied it the ability to call him or seek a response to the detailed allegations.
The church said Perrett’s earlier statement to his criminal lawyers was of limited assistance in fairly defending the case.
“Your honour will appreciate that the foundational issue in the case is: did the abuse occur?” the diocese’s lawyers said.
“The plaintiff will give evidence that it did. In response to that we will say Mr Perrett is dead, we cannot call him, and we will tender this document to prove that he didn’t do it … That [document] is a far cry from being able to call Mr Perrett.”
Greg Choat, a solicitor for the plaintiffs, said one of his clients was a “dying man”.
“He’s got months to live and will spend some of his last days trying to force the church to deal with the merits of his case.”
Justice Richard Cavanagh has reserved his decision and is expecting to make a judgment by the end of next week.
The diocese was approached for a response but declined due to the ongoing court proceedings.