Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Church misleads sex abuse victims

Church misleads sex abuse victims
July 15, 2010

SEXUAL abuse victims in Melbourne have been receiving misleading letters from the Catholic Church saying that if they accept compensation they can never take further action for any other cases of abuse.

The standard letter sent with legal offers of compensation, says that signing the offer ''releases the Archbishop from all further claims arising out of the sexual abuse or any other sexual abuse by a priest, religious or lay person under the control of the Archbishop of Melbourne''.

Lawyers consulted by The Age say deeds of settlement refer to specific abuse. They say that as the second part about ''any other sexual abuse'' is not included in the deed it has no legal force, but it could intimidate victims into abandoning compensation claims for separate abuse.

Advertisement: Story continues belowA church spokesman yesterday agreed the covering letter sent with legal settlements ''overstated'' the position and was ''obviously incorrect'', and promised the letter would be adjusted to remove the ambiguity in future.

The spokesman said a deed of release (compensation) for a claim of abuse did not prevent a victim making further complaints about separate abuse, and several victims had done so.

He thanked The Age for drawing the problem with the letter to the church's attention.

The backdown follows last month's pastoral letter on sexual abuse, sent to all Melbourne's 219 Catholic parishes, in which Archbishop Denis Hart spoke of his and the church's desolation, shock and shame at the ''scourge'' and ''grave evil'' of sexual abuse. He admitted that the church had not always dealt appropriately with abusers and said the church was doing all it could to respond with justice and compassion.

Solicitor Paul Holdway, who represents many victims, said the clause was fairly standard in letters offering compensation.

''They try to get the release as broad as possible, that's standard legal practice. But it's inconsistent with the church's public statements … If someone doesn't have legal representation it has the potential to confuse and even intimidate.''

Victims welcomed the church's response, saying many had been confused by the letter. Robin Henderson showed The Age the solicitor's letter and deed of settlement she received last October.

Independent commissioner Peter O'Callaghan, QC, accepted that she had been sexually abused by a priest at 10, but Ms Henderson, 67, wants to bring complaints about two other priests who abused her and a religious order she claims abducted her and sent her to Italy against her will to be a nun.

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