Catholic Church abuse processes 'deeply flawed': new inquiry submission

The Catholic Church put the safety of clergy sexual abuse victims at risk by offering inadequate support in areas like Ballarat, according to a new submission to the abuse inquiry.

In one instance in Melbourne, a suicidal victim was told to ring back in four days, according to evidence compiled by law firm Lewis Holdway for the Victorian inquiry into how the churches handled abuse.

Another victim who was told his statement to Melbourne Response independent commissioner Peter O’Callaghan, QC, was completely confidential then found it used by the church to try to discredit the victim during the trial of his civil damages claim.

Many clients have been significantly further damaged as a result of going through a church process.

Lewis Holdway, which has represented 200 victims over 17 years, was one of 10 submissions published under parliamentary privilege on the inquiry’s website late on Monday.

Lewis Holdway says another life put at risk was a child in real danger from a paedophile priest, whose mother was told she had to wait until she got a letter from Mr O’Callaghan.

It says some parishes – including Ballarat, Healesville and Doveton – that had a succession of paedophile priests need special support that they have not received, and asks the inquiry to investigate claims that a paedophile ring of priests may have operated in some parishes.

The firm cites a litany of alleged failures from the protocol the Melbourne church set up in 1996, saying some clients were misled into thinking church lawyers were acting on the victims’ behalf, inappropriate questioning of victims about their sex lives, victims being pressured to attend internal church hearings where they felt they were the ones on trial rather than the perpetrator, and refusal to provide counselling for victims.

It says its clients have met many barriers to seek redress.

“It is our strong contention that many of the current church complaint processes are deeply flawed and are in need of significant reform. 

“Many clients have been significantly further damaged as a result of going through a church process (a dynamic which we refer to as ‘systemic abuse’) and we remain concerned that this is likely to discourage victims from coming forward.”

The submission identifies “consistent and recurring” issues about lack of independence by church investigators, inadequate training and skills of staff, inadequate support, power imbalance, invasion of privacy, and lack of transparency and accountability.

Lewis Holdway makes a series of recommendations, including mandating more consistent settlements to victims and reviewing all previous settlements to ensure fair outcomes.

New submissions to the inquiry include three from the Catholic Church. 

In November, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart said child abusers should not be allowed to use statutory limitation restrictions to escape justice, but in a submission posted on Monday, dated May 16, he argues that abolishing limitations would be contrary to the public policy behind the legislation.

He also argues that there is no case that the church should face a longer claims period than parents, which ends when the victim turns 37.

Archbishop Hart clarified yesterday that he still favoured no limitation for criminal prosecutions of paedophile priests, but advocated the same limit as for parents in civil actions.

In a second submission, also dated last month, the church identifies and replies to 18 “misconceptions” about the church and abuse. 

These include that abuse is still happening in the church, it’s just that it takes 20 years before victims come forward, that the church has done nothing to prevent abuse, that it investigates allegations in-house, that it has not co-operated with police or reported a single case, that it is more concerned with protecting its reputation, that there have been widespread cover-ups and that it hides behind legal defences.

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