A Catholic priest from the Lismore diocese in Northern New South Wales is fighting the church over sexual abuse he allegedly suffered as a 12-year old altar boy.
First case of a priest suing the Catholic Church
The case is believed to be the first involving a priest suing the church for historical child sexual abuse.
The Catholic Church is seeking a permanent stay to stop proceedings being brought against it, arguing that the priest took too long to come forward, and that the years between the alleged offences and the court case deny any chance of mounting a fair defence.
But many see this as just another attempt by the Church to silence a complainant so that details of the alleged incidents are never heard, at a time the institution claims to be working towards transparency and accountability, and doing right by those it has wronged.
What is a permanent stay?
The permanent stay is being sought in the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
There is a statutory power for all courts in NSW to order a stay of any proceedings before the court, either until a specified day or permanently.
This means the proceedings are either suspended for a period of time, or stopped indefinitely.
In addition to the statutory power, the Supreme Court of NSW has inherent power to stay proceedings which are an abuse of process.
In court documents, the plaintiff alleges that he was abused in the 1960s by priest Clarence David Anderson, who is now deceased.
The abuse is alleged to have occurred at a church on the north coast of New South Wales, which sat on the grounds of a boarding school.
Clarence “David” Anderson was a priest and religious teacher while the plaintiff was a boarder at the school, and an altar boy. The plaintiff alleges he was abused by Mr Anderson in the sacristy of the church, following morning mass.
The Catholic Church is vigorously defending the allegations and has written to the plaintiff’s lawyers, demanding the case be dropped by 6 February and warning it will pursue legal costs if it isn’t.
The church argues that the delay in bringing the claim has permanently prejudiced its capacity to investigate, and respond to and defend the allegations.
This comes years after the diocese reportedly offered compensation to two families in 2004 who alleged Anderson sexually abused two brothers aged 9 and 14 in the Macksville area between 1966 and 1968, and two other brothers, aged 9 and 15, in Tweed Heads parish in 1969.
The plaintiff is one of 11 people seeking compensation from the diocese because of Anderson’s alleged abuse.
Church claims the disclosure is ‘too late’
His case is believed to be the first known example of a priest suing the Catholic Church in Australia for abuse, but it is the second by the Lismore diocese to have an abuse case thrown out due to delay.
Just a month ago, in December 2019, the diocese successfully applied to permanently stay a case brought by a woman who alleged she was abused in the 1940s by a priest named John Curran who has also since died.
The court permanently stopped the woman from pursuing her claim because the death of key witnesses and lack of documentation would leave the diocese in a “manifestly unfair” position trying to defend the claim. The ruling also stated that the decision was not a reflection on the woman’s credibility or “the credibility of the account of the sexual abuse she stated she suffered”.
There has been widespread criticism of the church from victims, particularly in light of the findings by the Royal Commission which in its final report counted 4,444 allegations of abuse by more than 1,800 Catholic Church figures.
It also found that the average time between a victim being abused and disclosing it was more than 30 years, because of the trauma, shame and embarrassment by victims. At the time it delivered its final report the Royal Commission also recommended the church take steps to better account for historic child sexual abuse and support victims.
George Pell’s High Court Appeal
Australia’s most high profile case of child sexual abuse against former high ranking Catholic Church priest George Pell is before the High court of Australia which has granted him ‘special leave’ (permission) to appeal, providing him with the last legal avenue to have his conviction overturned. His appeal is expected to be heard by a full bench of seven justices within the next few months.