Now that the Pope has left Sydney, will it be back to business as usual for the Catholic Church in its dealings with s-x abuse victims?

While Pope Benedict’s apology and carefully choreographed ‘meeting’ with four s-x abuse victims yesterday was designed by the Church’s PR flunkies and political strategists to show that the Catholic really does care about according justice, the legal tactics adopted by the Church in Sydney suggests otherwise.

On November 16 last year the High Court rejected an application by John Ellis, who had been s-xually abused by a Father Aidan Duggan as an alter boy in the Sydney parish of Bass Hill in the late 1970s. Mr Ellis was appealing against a decision by the New South Wales Court of Appeal which had ruled that a complex and technical defence taken by those whom Ellis had sued — Cardinal George Pell and the Trustees of the Archdiocese of Sydney — could succeed.

Pell’s lawyers had argued that because the Cardinal had no direct knowledge, or control, over events which had taken place thirty years ago, he was the wrong party to sue. The Trustees, who own and maintain church properties like the church where the abuse on John Ellis had taken place, said that they had no control over the appointment or conduct of priests and so were not liable for the abuse.

As Andrew Morrison SC, who acted for Ellis, told the High Court, in effect the Catholic Church “in New South Wales and the ACT has so structured itself as to be immune from suit other than in respect of strictly property matters for all claims of abuse, neglect or negligence, including claims against teachers in parochial schools at least prior to 1986. That immunity, they say, extends to the present day in respect of the parochial duties of priests. We say that such immunity would be an outrage to any reasonable sense of justice and we say it is wrong in law.”

Cardinal Pell and the Trustees of the Catholic Church spent considerable sums of money on lawyers and expert witnesses in defending itself against John Ellis’s quest for compensation. Both Pell and the Trustees were obviously legally entitled as litigants to do this, but then so was James Hardie in its battle against asbestos victims.

But the issue here is should the Church and Cardinal Pell have played legal hardball with a s-x abuse victim in the first place, and having been successful in their legal strategy, will they do the same thing again?

If Pope Benedict’s apology is to mean something more than platitudes, then Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church should stop hiding behind their expensive lawyers’ tactics and immediately apologise and compensate John Ellis for the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Church.

And how about a Statement, signed by every bishop in the Australian Catholic Church, apologising for the way the Ellis case was conducted and undertaking that it will not seek to make itself immune from being sued in abuse cases from now on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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