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Not a legal entity

The Catholic Church in Australia successfully argued in 2007 that because it is not a legal entity in Australian law, victims of clerical abuse cannot sue it for compensation. The 2012 report by the Victoria State Police details how Church agents also discouraged victims from going to the police and warned the child abusers so that they could destroy evidence or be move to where they couldn't be prosecuted.

The Catholic Church of Australia felt legally able to receive massive funding from the taxpayer for its World Youth Day in 2008 and, despite the public subsides, also felt entitled to toss out a group of gay Catholic young people. However, when it comes to compensating young Catholics for abuse at the hands of its priests, it claims legal immunity.

The Australian Catholic Church has offered the "Ellis defence", named after lawyer John Ellis, who ran up against this when he tried to sue the church for the abuse he suffered as a boy. Church lawyers argue that because in Australia the Catholic Church is not a legal entity and its assets are held in a property trust, it isn't liable for historical cases of abuse. This leaves sexual abuse victims with no-one to sue, since priests take vows of poverty and the unincorporated associations own nothing. On the other hand, the trusts for the dioceses hold billions of dollars worth of the Church's assets, but in 2007 the High Court ruled that such a trust could not be held financially responsible for the actions of its clergy. [1]

John Ellis has said that Catholic Church entities have regularly raised time limitation defences to negotiate discounted payouts to victims and have told them that going to court would be useless because of the Ellis defence. [2]

And that is not all. At a Victoria State inquiry into sexual abuse in 2012 the Victoria Police provided evidence of the Catholic Church's systemic obstruction of police inquiries over five decades and testified that the Church has focused on "legal liability and public relations". Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton said that

police had statistics for sexual offences by clergy and church workers since January 1956, uncovering ''shocking'' figures: 2110 offences against 519 victims, overwhelmingly perpetrated by Catholic priests and mostly against boys aged 11 or 12. But in all that time the church had not reported a single crime to police. [3]

The full 2012 report by the Victoria State Police details how Church agents discouraged victims from going to the police and even warned the child abusers so that they could destroy evidence or be move to where they couldn't be prosecuted. [4]

Cardinal George Pell, then Archbishop of Sydney, was unapologetic about using what he considered a smart “legal tactic” of hounding Ellis, even though the Church assessor himself had concluded tht Ellis's charges were true. The Archbishop admitted that this was done to serve as a deterrent to future claimants, who “should think clearly, they should consider the advantages of not going to litigation.” Although Ellis offered to accept $100,000 in compensation prior to the case, teh church put him thourgh a process which ultimately cost the church $1.5m to defend. The Archbishop could well afford to spend this money to firghten other claimants, as his archdiocese controls more than $1.24bn in assets and turns over an enormous annual surplus. [5]

As of 2014 an attempt was being made to an amend the Roman Catholic Church Trust Property Act 1936 that will allow victims to litigate directly against the property trusts. This would finally force the Church to meet these claims on their merits, rather than hide behind legal technicalities to defeat them. [6]

The Australian Lawyers Alliance has said that

The Catholic Church is the only major organisation in Australia claiming immunity from suit and no responsibility for its clergy. It is time to end the legal abuse of victims superimposed upon sexual abuse by clergy. [7]


Notes

1. Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church V Ellis & Anor [2007] NSWCA 117 (24 May 2007)
http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nsw/NSWCA/2007/117.html

2. “Church threatening sex abuse victims with court: solicitor“, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 2013. http://www.smh.com.au/national/church-threatening-sex-abuse-victims-with-court-solicitor-20130906-2tabk.html 

3. Ibid.

4. “Victoria Police Submission to the Parliamentary Family and Community Development Committee Inquiry into Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other NGOs“, 21 September 2012. http://www.concordatwatch.eu/showdoc.php?org_id=1561&doc_id=4459 
http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/fcdc/inquiries/57th/Child_Abuse_Inquiry/Submissions/Victoria_Police.pdf

5. “Pell: Vigorous defence against Ellis was to deter other claimants“, Guardian, 26 March 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/26/pell-vigorous-defence-against-ellis-was-to-deter-other-claimants

6. Roman Catholic Church Trust Property Amendment (Justice for Victims) Bill 2014, 27 March 2014. https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/Prod/Parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LC20140327019?open&refNavID=HA8_1

7. Australian Lawyers Alliance, “Institutional responses to child sexual abuse“, (accessed 2014). http://www.lawyersalliance.com.au/ourwork/institutional-responses-to-sexual-abuse

 

Downloads

Victoria Police Submission, child abuse, 21 Sep 2012

Victoria Police Submission to the Parliamentary Family and Community Development Committee Inquiry into Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other NGOs, 21 September 2012


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