More “Towards Healing” Officials (Or: Jesus Had No Lawyer)

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Image: James Spence (Source: News Ltd.)

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is continuing its hearings, into the discredited “Towards Healing” process – the Catholic Church’s mechanism for dealing with claims of abuse throughout Australia (except for Melbourne, which has its own process, “The Melbourne Response” set up by Cardinal George Pell).

It has heard of the abuse of Mrs. Joan Isaacs by priest, Frank Derriman, and the problems she encountered with the “Towards Healing” process (see last two days’ postings). There had been a heavy involvement from the church’s lawyers and insurers in the process, Evidence has pointed to the clear impression that the church was concerned with protecting its wealth, rather than helping victims, as the “Towards Healing” documentation had claimed.

The enquiry has heard from some of the people who operated the “Towards Healing” process. Evidence of incompetence and outright deception were revealed.

Kenneth Robertson, the former convenor of the Queensland professional standards office was the Towards Healing representative that Mrs. Isaacs first reached out to. Robertson said he did not think Mrs. Isaacs had received a just and compassionate outcome. “First of all [because of] the delay of two years which was absolutely nonsense. I don’t think that the negotiation with regards to the monetary outcome was handled well at all,” Robertson told the enquiry.

He indicated that he now felt that the Towards Healing process should stop after the pastoral care process, and financial compensation should be handled by a separate body. He also conceded that Mrs. Isaacs had been incorrectly told her husband could not be with her during facilitation meetings, describing it as “a slip-up”. He admitted that “I don’t know who said to her that he couldn’t come.”

Bernadette Rogers, a state facilitator in charge of meetings between abuse victims and the church. Rogers is currently director of the Queensland professional standards office and was a facilitator for Towards Healing from 1997 to 2003 and again from 2010. During the hearing, Ms. Rogers came across rather badly.

Rogers revealed that she had never had a meeting with her Towards Healing colleagues around Australia to discuss consistency and fairness for victims, and she had no knowledge of payments or other outcomes reached in other states. “The way Towards Healing is established, it’s independent in each individual state, so I answer to the Queensland liaison committee,” said Rogers.

Ms. Rogers demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the role of the monetary component of the process. She conceded that it was understandable if a victim got upset to find out that someone in another diocese received a larger compensation payment for similar levels of abuse. Despite her role being central to the facilitation proceedings, Rogers said she did not see it as part of her role to make a judgment on the appropriateness of offers.

“I tried to focus on what were the needs of that particular complainant,” she said, adding that if they had no legal representation then “that was a role I took on for myself”. However, she later told the Catholic Church’s lawyer, Peter Gray (see previous posting), that she did not believe it was part of her role to advise victims on the “pros and cons of any proposals that were being discussed” even when they had no legal representation present.

Rogers also claimed no knowledge of any monetary limit to reparation payments by Towards Healing, but said the concept of reparations was “flexible” in the years post-revision and counseling costs were factored into a lump sum. “It was a process around telling a story and receiving an apology. In the later days reparation became something that was regularly addressed,” she said.

When it came to the counseling component of the process, Ms. Rogers appeared to slip up yet again. When questioned by the chief commissioner on how the offer of 10 counseling sessions “met Ms Isaacs’ needs”, when she had already gone through decades of counseling and clearly needed more, Rogers replied that “I didn’t have a psychologist’s report available saying what her needs might be.”

The commissioner reminded Rogers that she had earlier said her role was to focus on the needs of that particular complainant, to which comment Rogers replied that “I’ve got no recollection of how Mrs. Isaacs articulated her needs at the time. If she said that she needed counseling into the future then you would be right. I didn’t know what her ongoing needs would be and how often they would need to be reviewed.”

The commissioner then said he was “troubled by the apparent inconsistency” in Rogers’ statements, and suggested she could read the transcript during a break. After a short adjournment, Rogers was shown a transcript of her earlier comments, to which she responded that she did not think they were inconsistent.”

The most appalling performance came from James Spence, a church official who acted as a “conduit” between church officials, lawyers and insurers, with no decision-making capabilities. He acknowledged that, in 2001, the Brisbane church had a development fund of $154 million, and about $30 million in cash, yet victims were being offered a few thousand dollars.

However, he claimed he was not aware then if any money was specifically available for abuse matters other than from insurance. A letter Spence wrote in April 1999 to the church’s insurers was tendered in evidence.

In it, Dr Spence expressed reluctance to formally admit the abuse “even though he (Derriman) was found guilty”. He also said “concern should be expressed rather than go into the area of an apology once again”.

In a letter to church solicitors, Spence wrote that a letter from the Bishop of Brisbane, John Gerry, to Mrs. Isaacs was “not carefully worded” because it was drafted under the mistaken belief that Derriman had pleaded guilty. This allowed the church to argue the letter was not an admission of liability. “It does affirm Derriman’s guilt, of which I don’t believe there was evidence to warrant such an apology or admission,” he wrote.

Spence told the hearing it was “bad drafting”.

In a 1999 letter to Catholic Church Insurance, Spence said he was “reluctant to so formally admit the fact of the abuse” by publicly condemning Derriman. He also said he had “trouble seeing a nexus” between the abuse Isaacs suffered and difficulties she faced later. He also stated that “I have suggested … that we need to know what and when were any disturbances and how soon after the abuse occurred did they appear.”

He suggested avoiding getting “into the area of an apology once again” and instead that the church offer to pay Mrs. Isaacs’s counseling bills rather than a lump sum, as a lump sum “might be used to pay legal fees”.

Spence told the commission he was responding as a lawyer, and at the time an apology could be construed as admission of liability and would have raised concerns about “vicarious responsibility”. Commissioner McClellan asked Spence if he thought, in light of community expectations of a church which invited engagement by young people, “vicarious liability had a place to play in this”. The commissioner also asked Spence if he agreed that the church “creates, encourages and facilitates on an ongoing basis” opportunities for young people to engage with the church and its clergy, and as such the institution had a responsibility for the abuse that occurred.

This line of questioning, about the church actively soliciting young people to become involved, appeared to be a continuation of yesterday’s tack by the chief commissioner.

Spence continued the Catholic Church’s argument that it was not directly responsible for the action’s of its priests. He said “the church had set standards and the individual might fall short. The fact that Frank Derriman fell short of the standards – I cannot say the church is responsible. An understanding of human nature and its frailty needed to be taken into consideration. Derriman fell short of the standards that were expected of him”.

Under the glare of the enquiry, Spence did back-track on some of his former attitudes and statements.

For example: “I certainly didn’t mean there wasn’t evidence of his [Derriman’s] guilt.” He said he now though that the money offered to Mrs. Isaacs was “mean”, and the church should go outside the settlement offer put on the table by insurers, if it fell short of what the victim deserved.

Concerning the confidentiality clauses, he appeared to have a bet each way. He said it was “wrong to make a binding condition” of the clause preventing the victim from making “disparaging remarks,” but thought it would be appropriate to instead make a “recommendation” to the victim not to speak. He said he was referring to the problem of “exaggeration” in the media.

While he now thought that the confidentiality clause was “quite inappropriate”, his experience of working with insurers had made him think the clause was “part of the procedure” at the time of the drafts, and thought the clause was inserted by the lawyers “to protect the church from further damage”.

The role of the church’s insurers, its wholly-owned Catholic Church Insurance, was revealed in documents from a former Manager of Special Projects (i.e. sex abuse claims), Laurie Rolls (who was too infirm to attend in person). The documents revealed that, during the initial phases of the Towards Healing” process, the practice was to treat the claims in much the same way as any other insurance claim.

Roll’s previous correspondence read: “ It usually required an insured to make no admission of liability, it was wary of allowing apologies to be made, and it required or encouraged insurers to take advantage of limitation and other technical defences when they were available.’ In a letter from 1999 from Mr Rolls to the church, it was pointed out that the statute of limitations would apply to Ms Isaacs’ case if she went to the Queensland State courts.

The current Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge (see previous postings) made comments hardly worth reporting, due to their triteness.

It was “wrong” for insurers and lawyers to be involved.  A “lack of oversight” resulted in “a damaging role by them”. There had been a “tsunami” of claims, and the church was “like rabbits caught in a headlight”. The “handling” of Mrs. Isaacs’ case was “totally unacceptable”. Continuing with the typical “sound-bite” thrust favoured by the church’s PR people, he said that “The buck stops with the Archbishop”. How original!

And so on, and so on.

[Postscript: Protests outside the hearings are becoming a common feature. Today, CLAN, Broken Rites and SNAP were there. SNAP spokesperson, Nicky Davis, told the media that “We want the truth, that some in the church have been trying to  suppress, to come out…(The Truth, Justice and Healing Council) is primarily a public relations smokescreen… and a barrier between the bishops and the Royal Commission.” Cardinal George Pell continues to maintain his silence.]

Read more here:

Pro-Catholic Propaganda Feature: In the interests of a “fair and balanced” blog, the following photo from the Vatican PR Unit is re-posted.

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TOMORROW: Ms. Ingham, Fr. Brown and the Lismore Bishop

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

 

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