Catholic Church ‘hiding behind the law’ over historic abuse compensation sums

Updated October 12, 2017 22:19:23

A man who was raped and beaten by priests and brothers as a 12-year-old says he felt like a beggar when he asked the Catholic Church for money to pay for medical bills for treatment of the mental and physical illness he suffered as a result of his abuse.

Russell Clark is just one of many survivors of abuse who signed deeds of release, which prevent them from taking further legal action or requesting more compensation.

He was repeatedly raped and knocked unconscious as a schoolboy by priests and brothers at Salesian College in Adelaide in the 1960s.

“You’d go to bed at night crying and scared, you lived in terror,” Mr Clark told 7.30.

“Because you knew that if you said anything, they’d just beat you up.”

Catholic Church bodies are under fire for sticking to this and other historic settlements, signed with survivors of clergy child abuse for “pathetic” compensation sums despite the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses To Child Abuse and the church’s own bodies recommending they be scrapped in light of changes to the law.

“People in the past, hundreds of thousands of them, have had to sign these deeds for pathetic amounts of money — $20,000, $30,000, $40,000,” lawyer Judy Courtin, who represents dozens of clergy abuse survivors including Mr Clark, told 7.30.

By contrast, in 2015 the Victorian Supreme Court awarded its largest ever damages payout to a survivor of institutional abuse — in this case, in an Orthodox Jewish school — for $1.2 million.

‘We are not going to enter into any negotiations’

Dr Courtin said the Archdiocese of Melbourne has rejected the recommendation of its own review, the Ryan Review.

“The Royal Commission has recommended that these deeds of release be set aside so that people can start afresh,” she said.

“The church’s own review of its internal complaints process, the Ryan Review, also recommended that those deeds of release be waived.

“The current response from some of the institutions is more legalistic and more adversarial than before the royal commission.”

Dr Courtin said she had a case of six men, all abused by serial paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell, who had signed deeds of between $22,000 and $33,000 with the Archdiocese, most of whom were not legally represented at the time.

“The response from the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and this is only very recent, a few weeks ago, is that ‘we stand by those deeds of release’,” she said.

“‘We are not going to enter into any negotiations — if your clients wish to do anything further, then they must issue proceedings in the courts.'”

“I think it’s appalling,” Dr Courtin added.

“They are wittingly causing more harm, more psychiatric harm, to victims. They know that.”

Heroin ‘took the pain away’

Mr Clark ran away from Salesian College and became a heroin addict.

“When I discovered heroin, it took the pain away,” he said.

Although he got off the drug in 1986, he had without his knowledge contracted Hepatitis C, which was only diagnosed 20 years later.

He has since had three liver transplants, was given five years to live three years ago and is unable to work.

Every time his health has failed he has had to go begging to the Salesians’ Provincial, Father Greg Chambers.

He has received various payments over the past decade amounting to $160,000 to help him cover his health costs.

‘He’s relying on handouts to keep him alive’

“If Russell was able to issue proceedings in the courts, I daresay, looking at economic loss and proper pain and suffering damages, it would be well over a million dollars,” Dr Courtin said.

Mr Clark acknowledges that Father Chambers, who paid for travel to Perth for his third liver transplant, has saved his life, but finds having to beg “completely dehumanising”.

“Very stressful. You feel like a beggar,” he said.

“I’m a proud man. I used to be a hard worker.”

“He’s had to beg all the way and not only does he have to beg, he’s living in fear that if he rocks the boat, then everything will be withdrawn,” Dr Courtin said.

“He’s relying on handouts from the Salesians to keep him alive, really.”

But the last payment, of $80,000, had a deed of release attached, which said he could not ask for any more money and that’s why at law, he can’t sue.

Following guidelines ‘falls on the conscience’ of each bishop

Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, told ABC Radio Melbourne’s Jon Faine that the Council’s guidelines also recommended that settlements be re-opened if the survivor wished to.

But when it was pointed out that some archdioceses, including Melbourne, were ignoring this guideline, he conceded that individual bishops and church leaders had the power to make their own decisions.

“Each church authority, whether it’s a bishop or religious leader, it falls on their head about the actions within that diocese or religious order,” Mr Sullivan said.

“It falls on their conscience — that’s the way the church has been structured since day one.”

“Ultimately, we all have to live with our conscience, don’t we?”

Church ‘hiding behind our laws’

Mr Clark has a three-hour drive to Adelaide, where his specialist doctors are. He cannot afford to live in the city.

He would like financial help to relocate and pay rent there so the last years of his life are not spent in exhausting commutes.

His gastroenterologist wrote to the Salesians to ask for help to accommodate Mr Clark in Adelaide, but the doctor did not hear back.

“Even if the laws favour the church, if they are following the principles and the teaching of Jesus Christ they wouldn’t be hiding behind our laws,” Dr Courtin said.

“They would be on the front foot, doing far, far more to bring about proper justice for victims.”

The Salesians declined to comment on this story and the Archdiocese of Melbourne did not respond to questions.

Topics: child-abuse, catholic, royal-commissions, australia, melbourne-3000, adelaide-5000

First posted October 12, 2017 22:10:13

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