Monday, July 12, 2010

Toowoomba church admits sex abuse liability

Toowoomba church admits sex abuse liability
COURTNEY TRENWITH Brisbane Times
July 12, 2010 - 10:03AM

A Queensland Catholic diocese has made a stunning admission over liability for the sexual abuse of 13 primary school girls as recent as two years ago.

Toowoomba Bishop Bill Morris has apologised to the victims and their families and offered an "expeditious" resolution to compensation claims, the church says.

The girls were aged just nine and 10 when they were sexually abused - some were raped - by a teacher in 2007 and 2008.

Advertisement: Story continues belowGerard Vincent Byrnes, 61, pleaded guilty earlier this year to 44 sex abuse charges, including 10 counts of rape and one count of maintaining a sexual relationship with a child.

Byrnes was the school child protection officer at the time of the offences, between January 1997 and September 2008, and all of the victims were students in his classes.

He is awaiting sentence.

At least three of the victims claim they were abused after the school principal and the Catholic Education Office failed to act on another student’s complaint that she had been sexually abused by Byrnes.

Without addressing that specific claim, the church, in a rare case in Australia, has accepted liability and proposed a mediated settlement to be overseen by former High Court judge Ian Callinan QC.

The offer so far relates to five students who have lodged a claim for compensation, but a church spokesman said the offer would extend to the other eight girls.

In a statement, Bishop Morris said he understood the grief the victims' families would be suffering.

“I recognise the process of negotiating and settling claims can be stressful and worrying for the claimants and their families and it is my hope that these matters can be resolved as considerately and expeditiously as possible for them," Bishop Morris said.

“The children and their families affected by the former teacher’s actions remain my highest priority and my thoughts and prayers continue to be with them.

“The families of the children who have not yet pursued formal claims will also be invited to participate in the proposed mediation process in the coming weeks."

Slater & Gordon lawyer Damian Scattini, who represents the five victims, said they were "relieved" the church would not force them to go down an inevitably emotional path to win compensation.

"It means that [the victims] won't have to go through the trauma of proving that it happened and all that that entails," Mr Scattini said.

"They won't have to go through the usual thing with churches of proving that the employer, which is the church, should have known and prevented [the abuse].

"It saves a lot of grief for the families."

It is one of only a few cases across the country where the church has admitted liability early on.

"It's a breath of fresh air," Mr Scattini said.

"Is it perhaps a change of attitude? I hope so, because it's an unusual thing for them to admit liability."

However, he said it remained to be seen whether the admission would lead to acceptable compensation.

"Will their actions speak as loudly as their words have, that remains to be seen, but so far so good," Mr Scattini said.

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