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The Catholic Church Must Show Leadership For Abuse Survivors

The Catholic Church can mobilise for a greater good when it is willing and able.

23/02/2017 12:28 PM AEDT | Updated 23/02/2017 2:56 PM AEDT
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The position of the church might finally be shifting.

Extraordinary details have continued to emerge at The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse about the extent of sexual abuse and alleged perpetrators within the Catholic Church, as well as compensation paid.

The statistics are shocking -- more than 4,400 cases of alleged abuse have been recorded, and close to $280 million in compensation paid over 35 years. Significant concerns were also raised about barriers to compensation in dealing with the Catholic Church, including through the Church's Towards Healing process.

Sadly, the struggle for survivors seeking access to compensation is a tale we have heard all too often when it comes to the Catholic Church -- whether this is sought through the Towards Healing process or directly through a diocese or affiliated organisation.

For too long the Catholic Church has been hiding behind a complex legal defence known as the 'Ellis defence' that blocks victims from suing for compensation. Based on a 2007 NSW Court of Appeal decision involving abuse survivor John Ellis who was sexually abused by a priest in the 1970s, the defence essentially protects the Catholic Church from liability to be sued because it is not a legal entity. So despite well-documented abuse occurring within countless Catholic Church owned, affiliated and operated organisations, survivors must instead seek compensation directly from the diocese or congregation concerned, while the broader church remains at arm's length.

The end result is a lack of consistency surrounding how claims are responded to -- even when it is apparent that such claims are representative of a bigger and broader pattern of abuse. Nor is there any central oversight for the way survivors are treated with respect to claims that have been lodged across the various Catholic Church organisations.

As the Royal Commission has repeatedly been told, too many survivors are put through arduous legal battles with church organisations that often results in claims dragging out for years. The church has also continued to show no appetite for intervening in these matters by providing direction to the organisations concerned about a fair and decent approach for responding to survivors' claims.

The church's co-operation in providing such extensive data to the Royal Commission shows a unified approach that has rarely been seen to date.

The release of such shocking figures in the Royal Commission this month suggests however that the position of the church might finally be shifting. The church's co-operation in providing such extensive data to the Royal Commission shows a unified approach that has rarely been seen to date; indeed it is unlikely that such data could have been collected without the broader Catholic Church movement getting behind it.

Such efforts provide hope that the church might finally be prepared to play a greater role in providing leadership to all organisations that fall under its umbrella in relation to abuse claims.

At a minimum, the church should be directing its organisations to act as model litigants by accepting liability when it is evident that abuse has taken place. This would also mean dealing with claims on a uniform basis irrespective of which organisation or where the abuse occurred, to better ensure the process was more timely and fair for survivors.

With such extensive data on abuse now out in the open, and not withstanding its own moral obligations, it is hard to see how the church can reasonably continue to maintain its arm's length approach behind the Ellis defence among other measures and not provide the direction and leadership required.

Finally, as this data exercise with the Royal Commission has shown, the Catholic Church can mobilise for a greater good with respect to abuse survivors when it is willing and able to. Let's all hope that continues.

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