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Catholic Church has $30 billion. What about redress?

A recent investigation undertaken by the Age has revealed that the Catholic Church currently owns real estate and other assets in Australia to the estimated value of $30 billion. In Victoria, the Church owns an estimated $7 billion in real estate.

However, in 2014, under questioning from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Catholic Trusts Corporation valued the Church’s properties in Melbourne to be worth only $109 million based on “historical cost”. This significantly lower figure represents the historical cost of the properties when they were purchased, those being prices paid for property often in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The huge disparity in figures can be understood through the Church’s historical commitment to hiding its capital. As recently as 2013, the Church failed to disclose such information.

The Age article states that the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations asked for information about the Church’s assets and this information was never provided. The Age’s estimated figures are not obtained from cooperation with the Church, but from figures obtained under freedom of information from the fire services levy introduced after the Black Saturday bushfires, which required the Church as a landowner to have its properties valued for the first time to determine the correct levy.

With the Royal Commission estimating that the average payment to victims of Melbourne Archdiocese abuse under the Church’s internal Melbourne Response complaints and redress process at $35,000, the Age quoted chief executive Helen Last, of the In Good Faith Foundation, as saying that the investigation “confirms what we have known; there is a huge inequity between the Catholic Church’s wealth and their response to survivors”.

Potential compensation estimated at $1 Billion

The Church is yet to formally respond to The Age article, but has previously reiterated its interest in participating in a national redress scheme. In October 2017, the Church estimated that it would be liable for $1billion in compensation to child sexual abuse survivors under such a scheme.

This is a relatively small figure when considering the estimated $30 billion in assets that the Church has nationally as estimated by The Age, but dwarfs the total figure paid through the Melbourne Response. Established in 1996, the Melbourne Response paid out $11.3 million to survivors of child sexual abuse.

The Church has prefaced the $1billion compensation figure on the premise that all states should opt into the redress scheme.

Chief Executive of the Catholic Church’s Truth and Justice Healing Counsel Francis Sullivan has confirmed the Church’s position that they will not participate in the scheme unless all states participate. He stated that, “In other words, it’s over to the states”.

Given that this $1 billion figure presents a projected quarter of the estimated payouts, we believe that the Church should opt into the scheme, regardless of whether all states choose to participate. This is especially true in circumstances where South Australia has indicated its opposition to a national redress scheme and where Victoria and New South Wales have come out in support of the scheme, the latter two states being Australia’s most populated states and as such, where much of the compensation monies would likely be paid.

The Church has also made itself famously difficult to sue in Australia, with its reliance until recent times on the so-called Ellis defence. Signing up to the redress scheme would save time and costs for many survivors as well as the Church, even if the scheme is not available in all states.

The Church already enjoys tax exemptions and generous government funding, costing the taxpayer billions of dollars every year. It is time that the Church took responsibility and funded compensation relative to the harm it has caused and the wealth it has accumulated.