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The Recent High Court Decision on Catholic Sexual Abuse

Yesterday, the High Court of Australia refused the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne’s request to appeal a decision allowing a parent to recover damages for sexual abuse of their child.

In 2022, the Supreme Court of Victoria allowed a parent to bring a civil claim against the Catholic Church arising from sexual abuse of their child. The case concerned historical allegations of child abuse by George Pell. The parent claimed that due to the psychological impact of the abuse, their child began using illicit drugs and continued until his untimely death. The alleged abuse was revealed to the parent by police in 2015.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne appealed the court’s decision on the basis that the 2018 Victorian law reforms only apply to ‘primary’ survivors of child abuse.

In 2023, some twelve months after the court’s decision, the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal refused the appeal. The Court of Appeal clarified the legislation also applies to parents who bring civil claims against NGOs based on child abuse perpetrated on their child.

The purpose of the law reforms was to rectify unjust legal barriers to survivors’ legal claims highlighted by the ‘Ellis’ defence. This defence barred survivors from suing religious institutions because they lacked a ‘legal’ identity that was capable of being sued.

The Legal Identity of Defendants Act (Organisational Child Abuse) Act 2018) was brought in to solve this problem. Now survivors can sue unincorporated NGOs which use trusts to conduct their activities. Therefore, organisations such as the Catholic church can be accountable in civil litigation for institutional child abuse.

Unsatisfied by the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne sought special leave from the High Court. The High Court refused the proposed appeal due to ‘insufficient prospects of success’.

Let it be clear: the High Court has sent a message. The law reforms, hard fought for, are  holding institutions accountable in civil litigation. The reforms apply to both primary and secondary survivors of child abuse. Parents whose lives have been devastated by abuse perpetrated upon their children have legal recourse. Courts have only breathed air into the reforms that remove barriers to claims against NGOs (like the Catholic church) arising from child abuse.

It’s an acknowledgement of both the intergenerational trauma of child abuse and fundamental rights of survivors to seek justice.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne v RWQ (a pseudonym) & Anor [2024] HCASL 15 (8 February 2024)