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Published: 29 March 2019
Author: Kate Malone

Does Pell's conviction change the landscape for civil claims?

As a result of Pell’s conviction, RCT Law has received enquiries from some of its clients who wish to understand what impact, if any, Pell’s conviction may have on their civil claims for compensation. This is particularly the case where the survivor has been abused by a priest or other religious figure.

While the answer to this question is not clear-cut, we can say that the Pell case adds momentum to an ongoing shift in the landscape in this area of law whereby survivor testimony is more likely to be heard and believed.

The case

The conviction and sentencing of Cardinal George Pell has understandably been the subject of much interest and debate in recent weeks. There have been many positive messages to be taken away from Pell’s conviction, one of the main ones being that a survivor’s allegations of abuse, even against a high-profile figure, can be accepted and believed by a jury. Pell’s conviction has shown that this is true even in circumstances where there is limited corroborative evidence or witnesses to the offending.

For survivors of abuse, one of the main barriers to disclosure of the abuse is the fear that they will not be believed. We hope that Pell’s conviction will serve as a catalyst to encourage survivors to come forward and tell their stories with greater confidence that they will be believed.

More pressure on institutions

The heightened media attention which has surrounded Pell’s conviction and sentencing may mean that those organisations that were responsible for child institutional abuse, including churches, religious orders, governments, schools, sports groups and so on, feel greater pressure to respond to civil claims for compensation in a more satisfactory way. Sometimes, this can translate into greater amounts of compensation being awarded to survivors as these organisations are essentially in “damage control” and are trying to salvage or prevent damage to their reputations.

However, in saying that, there is already a lot of knowledge of sexual offending by many perpetrators of abuse, in many institutional settings. So while Pell is certainly a bigger name than most, his conviction and sentencing only adds to what is already a very detailed and public picture of offending in institutional settings by people such as foster carers, teachers, youth officers, workers at children’s homes, priests and religious figures.

The legal side

From a purely legal perspective though, Pell’s conviction and sentencing should not have any impact on civil claims for compensation unless the survivor’s claim is directly related to the abuse they suffered at the hands of Pell himself. In circumstances where a survivor was abused by Pell, his conviction can help to establish that he had “form” and the evidence obtained through the criminal trial could help the survivor to argue that the Catholic Church either did or should have known that they were at risk of abuse by Pell.

Otherwise, in circumstances where the survivor was abused in a different institutional setting or by a different priest or religious figure, the survivor’s argument that the institution was negligent towards them is neither enhanced nor hindered by Pell’s conviction. What will be relevant in those circumstances is evidence of other offences committed by that particular perpetrator; or any kind of evidence which indicates that this institution was on notice of the abuse or ought to have known the abuse was occurring and failed to take action.

However it is important to note that even in circumstances where there is limited corroborative evidence, RCT Law has still been successful in bringing claims for survivors of institutional childhood abuse. There are also other legal arguments that can be made in those circumstances, such as that the institution was vicariously liable for the criminal acts of the perpetrator.

What is the end result?

So in summary, while the conviction and sentencing of Pell does not change the law in relation to pursuing civil claims for compensation, it is still a big advancement for survivors of abuse and hopefully an encouragement to survivors that they will be believed.

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