Whilst the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England & Wales focuses its attention on reviewing legal processes available to deliver reparation to victims and survivors of abuse, and in particular to consider whether the law (such as the statute of Limitations) should be changed, we can see the impact a change in the law can have in other jurisdictions.
In the wake of the equivalent inquiry in Australia the State Government of Victoria has abolished the so-called ‘Ellis defence’, in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in Australia.
In 2007 former altar boy John Ellis lost a landmark civil action against the Catholic Church after the Church successfully argued it was not a ‘legal entity’ and could not be sued.
The ‘Melbourne Response Program’ was instead set up by the church — its architect was Cardinal George Pell, who was himself convicted and sentenced in March 2019 to six years in prison for abusing two boys in a Melbourne cathedral in the 1990s. Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence. The system he introduced meant those accusing the church of childhood abuse could not receive payments through the court, but would receive a tariff payment from the church, provided they renounced any right to sue the church.
Now that the Ellis defence has been swept away the Catholic Church in Victoria is facing at least 800 new legal actions for child sexual abuse. The increase in claims experience suggests some victims are not content to pursue a claim through redress schemes, like the one set up by Cardinal Pell or the Australian National Redress Scheme.
It remains to be seen what IICSA makes of these recent developments in Australia and what lessons it might learn in making its own recommendations.
Jag Hayre, Partner, BLM