David Curtain, QC: (Or: Closure for Victims?)


The Victorian Parliamentary enquiry into clerical child sexual abuse recently heard evidence from the head of the Catholic Church’s “Melbourne Response” compensation panel, Mr. David Curtain, QC. The “Melbourne Response” has been widely discredited for intimidating victims, failing to report matters to police, and placing unreasonable conditions on compensation for victims.

Mr. Curtain got away lightly under questioning by the Parliamentary Committee. Despite repeated claims by victims’ support groups that Mr. Curtain’s role was to pay hush money to protect the Catholic Church, he was able to concentrate his evidence on his own defence. He denied being the Catholic Church’s conduit for hush-money, while claiming to be totally on the victims’ side.

The good Mr. Curtain has, in the past, acted against victims in the courts as counsel for PwerCorp, Esso, and former ATSIC Chairman, Geoff Clark (pictured above). A common comment in our society is to judge people by what they do, not by what they say. This applies damningly to the Catholic Church’s Mr. Curtain.

Take the case of Mr. Clark, who was (unsuccessfully) defended by Mr. Curtain in a civil case involving allegations of gang rape of a minor, Ms. Stingel. The jury found Mr. Clark guilty and awarded compensation to Ms. Stingel. The case is the subject of a book by Michelle Schwartz, entitled “A Question of Power: The Geoff Clark Case”.

Media reports refer to Mr. Curtain’s “attempts to discredit” Ms. Stingel. The Schwartz book details claims of how Mr. Curtain put it to the victim that she was regarded as a “slut” in her community.  This type of attempt at discrediting a rape victim, while permissible in the courts, is no longer accepted by the wider community as being ethical.

As the case progressed, Mr. Curtain maintained this kind of attack on the victim. He also suggested that, as a child, she had resented the fact that she was mistaken for Aboriginal when in fact her family is of German-Prussian origin. He also asked whether she had resented Aborigines because of a rumour that circulated when she was 13 that her mother had had an affair with an Aboriginal man.

Continuing the line, Curtain, in his defence of Clark, described Stingel as a “troubled girl” whose assertions were “highly improbable, some might say wildly improbable”. Clark, on the other hand, according to Curtain, had been “demonized” in the media. In particular, The Age, Mr Curtain said, had “tried and convicted” Mr. Clark.

This was the man who claimed to be on the victims’ side at the Parliamentary enquiry.

Mr. Curtain acted for the oil giant, Esso, in a compensation case following the Longford gas explosion in 1998. In 2001, Justice Cummins fined Esso a record $2 million after it was found guilty of 11 charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Two workers died and eight were injured in the disaster on September 25, 1998.

The compensation claim in question involved the two children of an ESSO worker, Jim Ward. Justice Cummins said Esso, not Mr Ward, failed regarding the explosion. He described Mr Ward as a decent man who had received a bravery award and impressed with his integrity in court.

Evidence was presented, on behalf of the victims, that a psychologist had “no doubt” that the explosion had caused the separation of Mr. Ward and his wife, who had been happily married for 15 years. Mr. Ward’s change in personality had a bad effect on his children. Mr. Ward’s son saw his father change from a “fun-loving to a cold, angry, disturbed man”. His son had previously spent a lot of time with his father, but now regarded their relationship as “pretty dead”. The boy has been found to have an adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood.

The other victim, Mr. Ward’s daughter, still had weekly counseling at school. She suffered depression, was taking anti-depressants and continued to experience anxiety.

Mr. Curtain’s response? He said marriages broke up daily and it was comforting for some to be able to blame something for it.

The PowerCorp case speaks for itself. Powercorp assets started a fire on February 7, 2009, which burnt 2346 hectares and 13 houses on the outskirts of Horsham. In the effected residents’ compensation case, Mr Curtain told the court the transmission of electricity carried inherent dangers, including the risk of fire, which could not be reduced to zero. So this is sympathy for victims?

Mr. Curtain also represented PowerCorp at the Victorian Royal Commission into the “Black Saturday” bushfires tragedy. During hearings he “implored the commissioners to consider that the power company had already suffered a lot of negative publicity based on the allegations aired at the commission.” It might equally be said that the Catholic Church has also suffered a lot of negative publicity based on allegations aired during the Victorian enquiry.

While it is readily acknowledged that lawyers are not really free to choose their clients (“cab ranks”), it is also true that they have a choice in which tactics they use when defending them. This is a matter of legal ethics, for which there is no legislated protocol.

Given the tactics Mr. Curtain has been comfortable in using against victims in the above cases, it may well be reasonable to question his assertion of “being on the victims’ side” when dealing with compensation claims under the “Melbourne Response” protocols.

Read more here:

TOMORROW: More on the NSW enquiry

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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