Law Firm Ends Relationship with Catholic Church

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Priest and children

A Melbourne-based law firm which employs around 900 lawyers including 145 partners says it will end its relationship with the Catholic Church, after 50 years of representing the organisation in the context of claims of sexual abuse and other forms of impropriety.

The public statement by Corrs Chambers Westgarth says the firm is in the process of refocusing its direction and resources, but there are reports the decision stems from growing discontent within the firm about its perceived defence of clergy accused of child sexual abuse. 

Child Abuse Royal Commission

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse heard than more than 4,000 allegations of child sexual abuse against 1800 Catholic Church figures. 

One of the key problems it identified was that the organisation was able to cover up as well as enable continuing abuse by moving offenders from parish to parish, threatening to excommunicate those who reported alleged offences, relying on the seal of confession as a justification for failing to report matters to the police and paying off victims and their families through the use of contracts containing non-disclosure agreements prepared by lawyers.

The Royal Commission was also critical of the Church’s practice of repeatedly absolving perpetrators through the mechanism of the confessional, which in many instances gave them a feeling of being forgiven before going on to commit further abuses.

Priests have repeatedly vowed to maintain the secrecy of the confessional regardless of any change in the law, and in New South Wales the Coalition government refused to enact reforms which would compel members of the clergy to report crimes disclosed during confessions.

Victims can now sue the Church 

Until 2019, victims were powerless to commence civil proceedings against the Catholic Church. 

But the NSW Government passed laws in late 2018, which came into effect on 1 January 2020 allowing victims to seek justice and sue unincorporated organisations, including churches. 

The new laws effectively abolish the ‘Ellis Defence’ which had allowed the Catholic Church impunity in respect of civil suits for decades – essentially its structure meant that there was no single ‘entity’ with overarching responsibility which could be sued. 

Under the new laws, an institution must now identify a defendant with sufficient assets to pay any potential claim, or have the court appoint associated trustees who can access trust property.

The laws also reverse the onus of proof onto institutions, requiring them to prove they took reasonable steps to prevent child sexual abuse, and also stipulate a duty of care of organisations which exercise care, supervision or authority over children, to prevent abuse perpetrated by individuals associated with it. It reverses the onus of proof onto institutions, requiring them to prove they took reasonable steps to prevent abuse.

The laws also extend vicarious liability to cover abusers who are not necessarily “employees” of the organisation but whose relationship with the organisation is “akin to employment” for example, volunteers.

Court precedents to overturn previous ‘deeds of release’. 

In addition, in 2020, the Supreme Court of Victoria overturned a deed of release signed by a victim of child sexual abuse, who was paid $32,500 by the Catholic Church in 1996 in exchange for his silence and no further legal action.

The landmark decision paved the way for victims to be able to set aside previous agreements made with the church, and to sue for damages. 

There are estimated to be about 500 victims who signed similar deeds of release, often for small financial payouts, under the Catholic Church’s controversial “Melbourne Response”.

That initiative was set up in 1996 by George Pell – who had his conviction for child sexual offences overturned in an appeal to the High Court in 2020 – and was heavily criticised for its paltry payments which did not  reflect the severity of the life-long damage inflicted on victims, nor the Church’s ability to be financially accountable to victims, given that the value of its assets in Australia alone are estimated at around $30 billion.

Church response is painstakingly slow

Despite promises from the Vatican to address the issue of systemic child abuse which surfaced not just in Australia, but in many other countries too, victims still say that real change is slow. 

The Church’s lack of action is evidenced by its refusal to address issues relating to reporting, its reliance on deeds with non-disclosure agreements and its culture of denial, as well as concerning statements made by the higher echelons of the organisation including the Pope himself who has essentially blamed child sexual abuse on ‘the devil’ rather than perpetrators.

This conduct suggests to many that the organisation is reluctant to truly acknowledge victims and accept reforms which would decrease the likelihood of children being abused or perpetrators being enabled and excused.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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