What do the Royal Commission findings against Cardinal Pell mean for the Catholic Church in Australia

The position of the Catholic Church in Australia which is facing hundreds of civil claims by survivors of clerical sex abuse will have been dealt a further blow following the recently published findings of the Royal Commission relating to Cardinal Pell.

The Royal Commission found that Cardinal Pell knew by 1982 of complaints against Gerard Ridsdale and perhaps as early as 1977 and was aware of the church’s practice of shifting Ridsdale to different parishes.

This finding will no doubt strengthen claims being brought by survivors of sexual abuse who must establish that there was a breach of the duty of care owed to them if they are to succeed in their claims against the church.

Lawyers who are representing a numbers of claimants who have brought proceedings in respect of sexual abuse by Edward Dowlan will no doubt also seek to rely on a separate finding that Cardinal Pell in 1974 dismissed a plea by a St Patrick’s College student to stop Edward Dowlan abusing other boys at the school.

As referred to in one of our BLOGS earlier this week the Supreme Court in Victoria has established a specialised Institutional Liability List to administer lawsuits relating to child sex abuse as this list has seen a 100% increase in the claims being brought in the last year.

Viv Waller, a lawyer who has spent 25 years representing survivors of clerical abuse, said her firm had 260 claims against Catholic entities, including 28 relating to Ridsdale. Of those, 35 have been issued as Victorian Supreme Court proceedings.

Angela Sdrinis, a lawyer who specialises in sexual and institutional abuse cases, said she had about 200 cases on her books relating to the Catholic Church and its entities and that some of these claims will be impacted by the Royal Commission’s findings relating to Cardinal Pell.

The Royal Commission in its previously redacted Ballarat case study examined the “catastrophic failure in the leadership of the diocese and ultimately in the structure of the church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by priests”.

 Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli accepts that there has been an increase in claims against the Archdiocese and reported that “We’re getting very many. In the past, we would get a few a month; we’re getting a few a week now because of matters coming forward,”

Lawyers representing survivors of clerical abuse report that there are some church organisations, including the Archdiocese of Melbourne who continue to robustly defend these claims and it is hoped that the recently published findings by the Royal Commission might lead to different outcomes.

Ms Waller said while a lot has been achieved for and on behalf of survivors there is “At the same time, there is still a sense that the church has not come to grips with their culpability and failures to look after children. People are now asking, what consequence comes from this finding?”

 Following recommendations made by the Royal Commission which lead to a change of the law in Victoria in 2018 the church and its entities are no longer shielded from civil actions by their unincorporated structures and property trust arrangements. Unincorporated entities, including dioceses of the church, now have to nominate a defendant in response to lawsuits.

While it is too early to say what the exact impact of the Royal Commission’s findings against Cardinal Pell will be there can be no doubt that these findings have created further challenges for the church in its defence of these claims and will likely have far reaching consequences in terms of the strategies that can be adopted.


Written by Sharon Moohan at BLM


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