Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Catholic church must aid sexual abuse victims 'despite cost'

Catholic church must aid sexual abuse victims 'despite cost'
Michael McKenna From: The Australian July 15, 2010 12:00AM
TOOWOOMBA'S Bishop believes the church's admission of legal liability for the rape of girls at a Toowoomba school should set a template.
Bishop Bill Morris, co-chairman of the National Committee for Professional Standards, which is handling the abuse allegations said it should set the template in dealing with victims, despite the risk it may lead to the sale of assets to cover compensation payouts.

He said his move last week to admit liability for the serial abuse at the primary school set a precedent for Australian dioceses after decades of fighting victims to try to protect the church's reputation.

The girls -- aged nine and 10 at the time of their abuse -- were raped or molested by veteran teacher Gerard Vincent Byrnes, who also served as the primary school's child protection officer in 2007 and 2008. Byrnes has pleaded guilty to 46 sex abuse charges, including 10 counts of rape, and is awaiting sentence.

Families of five of the 13 victims launched legal proceedings this year against the Toowoomba diocese after revelations the school principal and Catholic Education had failed to act on a complaint from a student -- 14 months before Byrnes was stopped.

Bishop Morris conceded the liability admission and proposed mediation process -- to be overseen by former High Court judge Ian Callinan QC -- could be financially costly.

Asked if it exposed the diocese to being forced to sell assets to pay large compensatory and punitive damages, Bishop Morris said: "It is a risk, (but) we have to take it one step at a time".

"For too long we have played protection in these cases and feared damaging the good name of the church. But the good name ultimately is hurt by that sort of protection and cover-up.

"I hope that my action will prevent others from trying to run away and to face up, so victims have all the opportunity to heal."

It is one of the few cases in Australia where an institution has not tried to dodge liability with legal loopholes.

Bishop Morris, who will take the case to the next meeting of the NCPS, said it was also important the liability be extended to all 13 victims, not just to those girls abused after the school failed to act on the initial complaint in 2007.

"We are not going to be caught up in that legalese . . . all 13 girls were abused by the same man," he said.

Last year, the school's principal became the first person in Australia to be charged under laws mandating the reporting to police of any suspicions of sexual abuse involving a child.

Police launched the investigation into the school's handling of the case after a series of reports by The Australian revealed the principal had failed to act on complaints in September 2007 from parents of a nine-year-old girl.

Despite the acquittal of the principal, Bishop Morris later sacked him along with two senior officials of Catholic Education.

Last year, the Anglican Church voted down a push by clergy to drop the statute of limitations on legal action involving victims of child abuse. A motion before the three-day Brisbane synod would have set a nationwide precedent in exempting victims from laws that require they launch legal action by the time they turn 21 or within three years of the abuse.

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