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Penny Savidis

Published: 15 July 2019
Author: Penny Savidis

Likely that Christian Brothers spending more on legal fees than on compensation

The Age has today reported that the Christian Brothers’ Australian arm is racking up mammoth financial losses as it pays millions to its lawyers and child abuse survivors. Read the full article in The Age: Christian Brothers under financial pressure after paying $213 million in sex abuse compensation

The figures disclose that in the last six years, the Christian Brothers order in Australia has expended more than $213 million in both payments to its own lawyers and to survivors. The Christian Brothers Oceania Province (which comprises the previous provinces within Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea) has also been propping up the Australian order, with The Age revealing the regional body has funded it to the tune of $203 million since 2013.

How much actually goes to survivors?

Unfortunately, The Age figures do not break down the division between money spent by the Christian Brothers’ Australian wing on legal fees versus money for abuse survivors. But if the Catholic Church’s internal complaints process, the Melbourne Response, is any guide, you can rest assured that the Christian Brother’s legal fees are consuming the lion’s share.

Catholic Church documents subpoenaed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse disclosed that between 1996 and March 2014, only 28% of the $34.27 million spent by the Melbourne Archdiocese on the Melbourne Response reached abuse survivors themselves, with the remainder spent on administering the scheme, including paying $7.8 million to its so-called “independent commissioner” and $4.7 million in legal fees. Read the full article in The Age: Revealed: the true costs of George Pell's abuse compensation scheme.

We have dealt with claims against the Christian Brothers for decades. As the Royal Commission publicly revealed, abuse within the religious order was rife, with 22 per cent of its Brothers allegedly abusing children. The Christian Brothers ran the notorious St Vincent de Paul Orphanage in South Melbourne and the St Augustine’s Boys’ Home in Geelong, where former wards of the State describe horrific sexual and physical abuse, as well as St Alipius Boys’ School in Ballarat, which was an infamous “hot spot” of offending.

Litigiously minded

The legal tactics used over the years by the Christian Brothers have no doubt consumed millions of dollars in legal fees, and their lawyers have at times been belligerent and unduly legalistic. Even today, we find an extremely rigid approach to some claims, where abuse survivors are still forced to jump through unnecessarily litigious hoops in out of court settlements involving well-known offenders.

The Christian Brothers have joined the national redress scheme for child sex abuse survivors, but such claims are only part of its legal liabilities. Under the redress scheme, there is a maximum payment of $150,000 available, whereas payments made in court and out of court settlements can be much higher. For example, in West Australia last year, the Christian Brothers made a much-publicised settlement of $1 million to a terminally ill man who had been abused at two orphanages it ran there.

The Age has revealed that in the last year alone, the Christian Brothers in Australia generated $22 million in revenue (including from property assets and financial investments) but spent $134 million on sex abuse claims, leading to a $66 million deficit despite cash boosts from the Oceania Province. The Christian Brothers’ provincial leader told the Royal Commission in 2017 that there were doubts as to its ongoing viability in Australia, with the group no longer seeking applicants for its novitiate and the youngest Christian Brother aged in his 50s.

It appears that the Christian Brother order in Australia is terminally tainted, and perhaps this is not a bad thing given the number of offenders among its ranks. But abuse survivors need reassurance that there will be sufficient funds to meet their claims in the future.

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