The Catholic Diocese of Ballarat has admitted liability in a civil action brought by a victim of historical sexual abuse in a potentially landmark case.
The case may ultimately have far-reaching implications for survivors in Ballarat seeking to make civil claims against the Catholic Church.
Advocates and survivors in the city, meanwhile, urged the Catholic Church to drop aggressive legal tactics and be more active in helping with the healing process.
The details of the church's admission emerged in a directions hearing at the Supreme Court in Melbourne on Friday.
A victim of the notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale had issued a writ against the Bishop of Ballarat Paul Bird in February last year.
The victim, known by the initials JCB, was aged nine when he was raped by Ridsdale in a confessional in Mortlake in April 1982. Ridsdale was serving as a parish priest in the town at the time.
After no liability was admitted, the victim's legal team Judy Courtin Legal sought to add two defendants to the case: the Diocese of Ballarat and the Roman Catholic Trust Corporation for The Diocese of Ballarat.
Prior to July last year, victims had been unable to sue the Catholic Church directly due to the so-called Ellis Defence, a loophole that prevented legal action being taken against unincorporated organisations.
A bill introduced by the Andrews government last year prevented the church from relying on that to avoid civil lawsuits.
Lawyers for the Catholic Church had argued against the inclusion of the Ballarat Diocese as a defendant, arguing that it was being done retrospectively.
However, the judge hearing the case Justice McDonald allowed the additional defendants to be added to the statement of claim.
In defences submitted last month, Bishop Bird admitted that Bishop Mulkearns breached his duty of care to JCB because he was aware of a complaint of Ridsdale sexually abusing a child in Inglewood.
The Diocese of Ballarat also admitted it failed to take reasonable steps to protect JCB from Ridsdale.
The admissions can now be reported as they were heard in open court for the first time on Friday. One legal source described the admission as having been "dragged" out of the church's legal team.
The Catholic Church had previously acknowledged its failure in Ridsdale abuse cases, although not in a court of law.
The Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which coordinated the Catholic Church's response to the Royal Commission, wrote in its response to Case Study 28 concerning the Ballarat Diocese:
"The Church parties acknowledge that for Bishop Mulkearns to appoint Ridsdale to other parishes, after becoming aware that Ridsdale had offended while at Inglewood and in the absence of any clearance from a psychologist or psychiatrist, was inexcusably wrong."
It shouldn't have to be this hard, especially given that the Bishop of Ballarat has publicly said how much compassion the Church has for victimsJCB, plaintiff
A statement put out by Judy Courtin Legal said the victim was looking forward to an assessment of the damages.
JCB said: "It's taken more than nine months and a ruling by a Supreme Court Judge to get the Church to admit what it actually admitted to the Royal Commission back in July 2016, so I'm glad they've finally seen sense.
"But it shouldn't have to be this hard, especially given that the Bishop of Ballarat has publicly said how much compassion the Church has for victims. "
REACTION IN BALLARAT
For Peter Blenkiron, who was abused while attending St Patrick's College in Ballarat in the 1970s, the admission has come decades too late.
"If they had taken responsibility back in the 1950s when they knew stuff was going on, you wouldn't even be having this conversation with me," he said.
"They have got to take a leaf out of St Patrick's College where they deal with the pain of the past and help us heal rather than listen to the lawyers and follow the company line of denial."
Mr Blenkiron, who is pushing for a men's mental health clinic to be set up in Ballarat, urged the Church to play a more active part in the city's healing process.
"How many millions of dollars have they spent on this legal defence when all they had to do was do the right thing?" he said.
"I was just want them to become active. Instead of spending all their time and energy saving a brand and saving face, show us with your actions that you really want to help the community here."
How many millions of dollars have they spent on this legal defence when all they had to do was do the right thing?Peter Blenkiron
His wife, Clare Linane, who has also been an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church, echoed his words. She accused the church of "playing legal dodgeball" and said the admission came too late for many.
"Sadly by waiting until now, they have missed their opportunity to show genuine remorse and compassion for survivors."
Maureen Hatcher, the organiser of Loud Fence, said: "There's just been a big cloud of denial. I hope this opens this up a little bit."
The admission means that it will be very difficult for the Catholic Church to deny liability to Ridsdale victims after 1975, when the Inglewood case took place.
However, the ramifications could be wider than that, depending on the outcome of the judge-only trial, which is scheduled to be heard in January.
Allegations of the Diocese's knowledge of Ridsdale's prior abuse will also be considered, as well as their knowledge of additional offences committed by other priests and Christian Brothers in the same era.
These could be relevant to the assessment of damages - and could potentially establish in open court the extent of the Catholic Church's knowledge of abuse.
The judge said he would allow the cases to be considered as it could impact on the duty of care and the steps that should have been taken to protect the victim. It could also be relevant to claims for aggravated and exemplary damages.
Dr Chris Atmore, the leading solicitor for the victim in the case, said that civil action process would remain a challenging path for survivors to take. However, she said the church's admission had been gained through her client's bravery and that he hoped his actions would smooth the way for victims after him.
The Courier approached the Bishop of Ballarat's office, but they declined to comment as the matter is still before the court.
- Anyone affected can phone Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA), Sebastopol on 5320 3933, or free-call the crisis care line 24 hours on 1800 806 292. Alternatively call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.
Have you signed up to The Courier's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in Ballarat.