The Compensation Issue (Or: Placing A Value On A Life)

The Victorian state Parliamentary enquiry into clerical child sexual abuse will release its report tomorrow. It had originally been due for release by 30th September. While it is expected to recommend mandatory reporting laws for clergy, with a custodial sentence for non-compliance, much interest exists in its possible recommendations for victim compensation.

In the past, religious organisations have adopted an adversarial approach to the issue. It is well known that officials of all churches have been keen to hide abuse so as to protect the “reputation” of their organisations, but it is also becoming more and more evident that these same officials have been equally concerned with protecting their institutional wealth from victim compensation claims.

What financial help has been given to victims has been little, and given begrudgingly. The religious organisations, in particular the Catholic Church, have hidden behind their privileged legal status to avoid helping victims financially. The notorious “Ellis Defence” (see previous postings) is a classic example which basically says that the church does not exist, so they cannot be sued. This must change by way of Parliamentary legislation.

Another protection for the wealth of religious, and other, organisations is the provision of a statute of limitations. This is particularly unfair, since everyone agrees that it is normally a very long time before victims are able to report abuse. If these limitations can be avoided when prosecuting the abusers, they should also be avoided when it comes to the matter of compensation for those same victims.

Leading legal academic and long-time researcher on the issue of clerical child sexual abuse, Judy Courtin has proposed that a person should be able to sue, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. This view is now widespread in the community at large, and should be reflected by their elected lawmakers in the Victorian state Parliament when suitable legislation is considered in the wake of the enquiry’s report.

Care Leavers Australia Network’s (CLAN) Leonie Sheedy has said that many victims lived in poverty, and with poor health that could be traced back to the neglect and abuse they suffered as children. CLAN has continued its call for a compensation scheme. “These people need financial support to help them get by,” Ms. Sheedy has said.

Stephen Woods, who was abused by a pedophile priest, says that he hopes the Victorian report will recommend providing funds for abuse survivors to pay for health bills, counseling, housing and living expenses. “There are so many victims who are hurting and whose lives are still shattered from pedophilic activity, that society is going to have to support them for the rest of their lives – and that support needs to be adequate to stop the [suicide] deaths. The number of suicides, even from Ballarat, has been just outrageous.”

Mr Woods said the financial-help system must be financed by the religious institutions.

Even Catholic Church apologist, Father Kevin Dillon, who has spent two decades interacting with his church’s victims, says “Towards Healing” and the “Melbourne Response” (see previous postings) need an overhaul. “The church has been maintaining what is seen by many victims as an adversarial approach and a lot of damage has been done. I would like to see that all those victims are free to seek support, help and, as necessary, financial support from the church,” he has said.

The “Towards Healing” program will be the subject of the December hearings of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The view that present financial responses are inadequate is supported by Dr Vivian Waller, a lawyer who represents several victims. Dr. Waller asserts that “it is not good for victims’ emotional health to force them to beg the Catholic Church for compensation.” The Catholic Church should be providing significant sums of money to an independent body so that victims can stop dealing with the Catholic Church and stop being on the receiving end of the Catholic Church’s patronizing and belittling response to sexual assault victims,” she says. Many will be looking at tomorrow’s report to see what it has to say about this type of fund.

Abuse survivor, Andrew Collins, who represents a group of more than 80 people from the Ballarat area in the state of Victoria, has an interesting idea. Given that abuse victims usually suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, he feels that additional help through the disability pension system is warranted, along the lines of that given to Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.

Mr. Collins recently said that “There was one survivor that we knew of who would struggle every month, did he get his medication? Did he have his mobile phone? He was suicidal so he needed his mobile phone to talk to people and you know keep in touch with the world but he also needed his medication. He’d exhausted his so many ‘free sessions’ under the mental health plan very quickly and was just living in limbo.”

Mr Collins says survivors suffering PTSD and depression find it difficult to work, and need extra financial and medical help. He says the support needs to look to the long term, which is why he is suggesting that victims be granted access to the existing disability pension that’s available to returned soldiers. Two members of his group have recently met with the new federal Social Services Minister, Kevin Andrews, to discuss the idea. Mr. Collins says people need help now, and they can’t afford to wait the months or years it may take for the Royal Commission to make its recommendations.

Support group, Relationships Australia (see previous posting), has been the beneficiary of considerable Federal funding to help victims prepare for the Royal Commission. Spokeswoman Nikki Hartman says she’s heard similar calls for increased pensions for abuse survivors. “We do hear that a lot and we certainly hear that a lot who might need some very significant ongoing mental health care support and that has an effect on their physical health and so sometimes because of financial restrictions, they are really limited in their quality of life if so much of their money is going into health management,” she has said.

The final word can be given to Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were abused by a priest and one later took her own life. He said the Victorian report could do very little for his family. “It’s not going to restore the lives of my children,” he said. “What we’re looking for out of it [the Victorian report] is to see other victims benefit. I’ll be pleased to see it on the table and I look forward to seeing what is actually done about it,” he told local media.

Mr. Foster believes proper compensation must be paid to victims. He said the church constantly talks about money not being important to victims, but he believes that to many it is. “It may simply allow them a better quality of life. It gives them a sense of self esteem that maybe will prevent those suicides in the future. It might just be the ability for a victim to not be under constant economic pressure because his livelihood has been destroyed by this.”

To date, the issue of compensation has been confined largely to the moral, ethical and legal arenas, where the religious organisations have benefited from prevailing attitudes and power structures. After the Parliamentary report is released tomorrow, it will be played out in the political arena, where the bulk of public opinion is solidly behind the victims, rather than the churches.

The responses by the various political parties could be a game-changer in the next Victorian state election.

[Postscript: Today, when sentencing catholic priest, Russell Robert Walker, to five years prison for sexually abusing alter boys, Victorian state County Court Judge, Felicity Hampel, described the church’s response as “scandalous”. She said that “It is in my view remarkable that the church hierarchy has not taken any steps to strip you of your priesthood.” Judge Hampel said the case should be examined by the Royal Commission.]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: The Victorian State Parliamentary Enquiry report

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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