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Published: 09 December 2014
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas with research assistance from Kate Stowell

Melbourne Response review underway

Catholic survivors hoping for higher compo payouts 

Survivors of sexual abuse in Victoria are hoping for major reforms and higher compensation payouts following a review of the Catholic Church’s Melbourne Response program.

Starting in 1996, the Melbourne Response is the Archdiocese's internal complaints and compensation scheme for people who have experienced sexual abuse.

The Church considers the scheme a key part of its pastoral response to the global scandal of clergy child sexual abuse. Its aim is to provide enough money and counselling support to help survivors heal and move on with their lives.

But the Melbourne Response has been heavily criticised over the years, with survivors saying the maximum award of $75,000 is vastly inadequate and amounts awarded can vary greatly. The nature of the financial offers made is 'take it or leave it', an approach considered offensive by many survivors who feel they are being 'paid off' by the Church. The Melbourne Response has been subject to significant complaints, largely because the Church itself determines how much compensation it should pay.

Imperfect as it may be, due to the so-called 'Ellis Defence' effectively protecting the Catholic Church from being sued for historical abuse in Australian courts, the Melbourne Response currently remains one of very few ways many Catholic abuse survivors can access financial compensation.

To engage with the Melbourne Response, an abuse survivor must first recount their experience to a church-appointed Independent Commissioner, who makes a summary finding into whether the abuse claim is legitimate.

Those found to have suffered abuse are then forwarded to a lay person "Compensation Panel" charged with making a recommendation to the Archbishop for an award of money.

Reports suggest the Melbourne Response has paid more than $17 million to 326 abuse survivors in the 18 years it has been operating.

In August 2014, news that the Melbourne Response would be reviewed came as a surprise. During Royal Commission public hearings that heard significant criticism of the Melbourne Response, Archbishop Denis Hart said retired Federal Court judge Donnell Ryan QC had been appointed to address the following questions: 

1. Whether the current cap of $75,000 should be increased or removed;
2. If a cap is to be retained, the amount of the cap having regard to the amounts available under existing or proposed redress schemes responding to victims of sexual abuse;
3. How the amount of compensation to be paid to victims should be determined;
4. How past cases where compensation has been paid should be reviewed and the procedures that should apply to any such review;
5. Any changes to the structure, practices, policies, protocols and procedures of the Melbourne Response arising from any increase in the cap or its removal.

In our submission to the review, Ryan Carlisle Thomas argues there are inherent and irrevocable problems with the structure of the Melbourne Response. Chief among these is that survivors have no control over the process and no realistic alternative if they are unhappy with the process and/or the compensation offered. Given the difficulties survivors currently face taking legal action against the Church, they are forced to rely on the ‘goodwill’ of the very Church which allowed their abuse to occur in the first place. For many, this negative power relationship is replicated in the compensation process.

Recently, the Chief Executive of the Church’s own Truth Justice and Healing Council Francis Sullivan conceded that "the days of the Catholic Church investigating itself are over. The complaints handling, the complaints investigation, should be done completely by an independent body".

The only way to restore the trust of abuse survivors is for the Royal Commission to recommend the establishment of a government-operated, independent national compensation scheme, with the Catholic Church among one of several powerful institutions compelled to contribute significant funds.

It is not yet known when the findings of Donnell Ryan QC's Melbourne Response review will be made public.

Ryan Carlisle Thomas represents survivors of clergy abuse. The firm has represented more than 1800 survivors of institutional abuse. 

Related Links

Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne: Statement on Melbourne Response review

ABC TV Lateline: Melbourne Response to be reviewed

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