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Published: 26 August 2014
Author: Jane Cahill, Penny Savidis

Letters of apology unchanged in 13 years

You would have thought that a lot would have changed since the early days when the Catholic Church was devising it legal and moral response to the sexual abuse scandal that would eventually engulf it.

For example, there has been some softening in the hardline legal approach routinely adopted up till 2002, when the church would write to claimants declaring that any legal challenge against it would be “strenuously defended”. 

In the matter also of the level of ex gratia payment offered under the “Melbourne Response”, the cap was raised from $50,000 to $75,000 under pressure at least in part from the size of settlements being reached outside the church’s internal process.

In one matter, nothing has changed

In a piece of theatre no doubt calculated to embarrass Archbishop Hart in the closing stages of the Commission’s investigation into the Melbourne Response, examples of three letters of apology to Ms. Foster, Mr. Hersbach, and Mr. ‘AFA ‘dated 1998, 2006 and 2011 respectively were screened onto a projector.

The letters were identical in their wording of apology, drawing some indignant exclamations from the public gallery.

Even the Archbishop appeared embarrassed.

When it was put to him by the Commission that the letters appeared to betray a genuine lack of concern for the individual circumstances of the claimants involved, Hart admitted that they were drafted for his signature by the church’s lawyers and that yes, they could have been more personalised. 

The response was perhaps a fitting note on which to conclude the Commission’s public probing of the church’s strategy on dealing with sexual abuse under the Melbourne Response. That, despite making all the right gestures and noises indicating that the church hierarchy was disgusted that abuse had taken place and that the welfare of abuse survivors was always utmost in their minds, it has been the gaffs, the slips and metaphors resorted to by church witnesses when under questioning that has left the more indelible impression.

Will the church ever admit legal liability?

The last matter of substance to be touched upon was whether or not the church would ever remove or change the Deed of Release clause which accompanies every the letter of offer of compensation to survivors of clergy sexual abuse under the Melbourne Response.  

Removal of the contentious clause, which is designed to protect the church from any further litigation and compensation, would pave the way for those dissatisfied with their levels of payment to pursue claims for additional compensation in the courts.

Archbishop Hart said in response to the question: “We are considering it.” To this end he has stated that any payments being made now under the Melbourne Response pending the outcome of the Church’s consultation are made expressly subject to any future changes to the process.

Although not many people are holding their breath.

The Royal Commission now continues with a series of private hearings until the next public hearing in Darwin to be held from 22 September to 3 October.

Read the progress of 1998, 2006 and 2011 'Letters of Apology'

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