Church accused over abuse claims

The Catholic Church has been accused of using legal tactics to bamboozle victims of abuse into signing away their rights to sue for compensation.

The Australian reports today that the Church has warned victims it will not pay for their legal advice during its Towards Healing program, triggering a dispute with lawyers who believe it is an attempt to thwart damages claims.

However, the church claims it is the lawyers who are using legal tactics, presenting as new a statement of existing policy from its professional standards committee in Sydney.

Towards Healing was launched in all states except Victoria in 1996 and aims to resolve complaints in a pastoral-care setting.

Although victims are free to choose civil or criminal action instead, they may also receive payouts at the end of the Towards Healing process. Payouts vary from $5000 to $50,000.

Adelaide lawyer Peter Humphries, whose firm Duncan Basheer Hannon represents 12 alleged victims of church abuse, said the legal manoeuvre would see fewer and lower payouts to victims.

"These people don't have much money to begin with," Mr Humphries said. "The money they get in payouts is peanuts and they are not in a position to pay for legal advice as well."

He said the Towards Healing process sometimes included the victim signing a release preventing them from taking any future legal action, while the church admits no liability.

The director of the professional standards office of the Catholic diocese of Adelaide, Sue Cain, disputed their claims.

"Nothing has changed and I am surprised that these lawyers would make this interpretation of a memo that went out around the country," Ms Cain said.

She said the memo had "clarified" the position for victims engaged in negotiations with the church.

"Lawyers' fees will not be paid by the church if they are going to sit in as the support person at the start of the process," she said.

Ms Cain said the church would continue to pay for victims' lawyers in the final "facilitation" stage of the process, where legally binding agreements were made.

She said the memo reminded lawyers that they must not prevent personal contact between the church and the victim.

"Towards Healing is primarily a pastoral-care process so personal contact is essential in the beginning stages," she said. She said Ms Litchfield had attempted to have all communication to her clients from the church go through her office, which was against the spirit of Towards Healing.

In the final stage of the process a facilitator - a professional mediator who is not a direct employee of the church - gets both parties together and negotiates a resolution.

"Legal fees are looked on favourably at the facilitation phase," she said.

Legal spat over church abuse claims (The Australian 27/1/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Towards Healing (Australian Catholic Bishops Conference)

Church 'bamboozled' victims (The Australian/news.com.au 27/1/06)
Irish victims' group demands Bishop Casey apologize (Catholic World News 24/1/06)
Priest who saved porn stars' souls held over rape of nuns (The Australian 25/1/06)
Don Juans in dog collars find surplice of talent (Sydney Morning Herald 24/1/06)
Confusion over return of Dr Eamonn Casey, but he's 'welcome' (catholicireland.net 23/1/06)
Gardai to quiz Bishop Casey in England on abuse claims (Irish Independent 23/1/06)
150 women 'have had sex with priests' (Irish Times 20/1/06)
Parish unites to back priest and teacher's love affair (The Observer 22/1/06)
Attitudes Toward Priests Change in Ireland (The Guardian/Associated Press 22/1/06)
Huge majority oppose celibacy, back Fr Mossie (Sunday Independent 22/1/06)
Celibacy rule must go, claim supporters of priest (Irish Times 18/1/06)
Parish "saddened and disappointed" at revelation that priest fathered child (catholicireland.net 19/1/06)
Retired priest facing child abuse probe (RTE 18/1/06)
Priest started affair when woman was 22 (Irish Independent 19/1/06)
Archdiocese criticizes bishop's stance on sex abuse (Catholic News Agency 18/1/06)
Ridsdale faces new charges (Warrnambool Standard 18/1/06)

27 Jan 2006