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Amy Olver

Published: 31 March 2020
Author: Amy Olver and Jae Lee

Practising priest sues Catholic Church for abuse

A New South Wales priest, who remains unnamed for legal reasons, has commenced civil proceedings in the NSW Supreme Court against the Catholic Church for abuse he suffered as an altar-boy in the 1960s.

In what is believed to be the first known example of a practicing priest suing the Catholic Church, the claimant alleges he was sexually abused by Father Clarence ‘David’ Anderson who is now deceased.

The claimant alleges that Anderson sexually abused him following morning mass in the sacristy of a NSW Church. The claimant is one of 11 people seeking compensation from the Catholic Church as a result of Anderson’s alleged abuse.

Following the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (“the Royal Commission”), representatives of the Catholic Church have made public statements in which they profess the Church is working towards a system of transparency and accountability in an attempt to do right by survivors of abuse. This is in stark contrast to their past approach towards these matters which included failing to ensure survivors had independent legal advice, encouraging them instead to proceed by way of a Church-run ‘redress’ scheme which paid nominal amounts. This was exacerbated by them also taking an adversarial approach to litigation by relying on technical legal defences such as the now abolished, Ellis Defence.

In the current case, the Church has denied the claimant’s allegations and warned him to withdraw his Statement of Claim by 6 February 2020 to avoid being pursued for legal costs. The Church also argues that the claimant’s 57-year delay in disclosing the abuse would not allow for a fair trial in the Courts and therefore intends to have the matter permanently stayed, meaning the claimant is unable to proceed with the matter.

Our understanding is that the matter was listed for a Directions Hearing on 20 February 2020. It is unclear what developments have taken place since this time.

While in some circumstances a lengthy delay in the survivor bringing legal proceedings may prejudice the ability of the Defendant to properly defend their case this is not always the case. Increasingly, more claimants are adequately proving their allegations on the balance of probabilities as required by the civil jurisdiction.

Survivors will no doubt incur increasing applications by the Church and/or other Defendants to stay proceedings given the statistics released by the Royal Commission that of the survivors they spoke to during a private session it took on average 23.9 years for them to tell someone about the abuse.

In many circumstances, this is due to the culture of secrecy created by the Church and other Defendants and the fact that the Church and others often vehemently denied complaints that were received.

In addition to the trauma the abuse caused a claimant, survivors report further distress when their allegations are denied and Defendants take an adversarial approach in an attempt to evade responsibility for their negligence.

One would hope that our better understanding of abuse will lead to a trauma-informed approach, where the Church or other Defendants would attempt to resolve a claim without causing further trauma.

The RCT Abuse Law team have been pioneers in advocating for survivors of historical abuse. We take a trauma-informed approach in assisting you to navigate the legal options open to you.

If you or somone you know has suffered abuse we encourage survivors to make an enquiry for a free first appointment with us via email at enquires@rctlaw.com.au or call 1300 366 441.

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