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A Melbourne-based law firm which employs around 900 lawyers including 145 partners has said it will end its relationship with the Catholic Church, after 50 years of representing the organization in relation to abuse allegations sexual and other forms of irregularities.
Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s public statement says the company is refocusing its leadership and resources, but reports say the decision stems from growing dissatisfaction within the company with its perceived defense of accused clergy of child sexual abuse.
Royal Commission on Child Abuse
The Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard more than 4,000 allegations of child sexual abuse against 1,800 Catholic Church figures.
One of the main problems he identified was that the organization was able to cover up and allow abuse to continue by moving offenders from parish to parish, threatening to excommunicate those who reported alleged offences, relying on the seal of confession as justification for the failure to report the facts to the police and to compensate the victims and their families through the use of contracts containing non-disclosure agreements prepared by lawyers.
The Royal Commission also criticized the Church’s practice of repeatedly absolving perpetrators through the confessional mechanism, which in many cases left them feeling forgiven before continuing to commit new crimes. abuse.
Priests have repeatedly sworn to maintain confessional secrecy regardless of any changes to the law, and in New South Wales the coalition government has refused to enact reforms that would require clergy to report disclosed crimes during confessions.
Victims can now sue the Church
Until 2019, victims were powerless to file civil suits against the Catholic Church.
But the New South Wales government passed laws in late 2018, which came into force on January 1, 2020, allowing victims to seek justice and sue unincorporated organizations, including churches.
The new laws effectively abolish the “Ellis defence” which had allowed the Catholic Church to go unpunished in civil suits for decades – essentially its structure meant that there was no single “entity” with a overall liability that could be pursued.
Under the new laws, an institution must now identify a defendant with sufficient assets to pay any potential claim, or ask the court to appoint associated trustees who can access trust assets.
The laws also reverse the burden of proof on institutions, requiring them to prove that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent child sexual abuse, and also stipulate a duty of care for organizations that exercise care, supervision or authority over children, to prevent abuse by individuals. associated with. It shifts the burden of proof onto institutions, requiring them to prove that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent abuse.
The laws also extend vicarious liability to cover abusers who are not necessarily “employees” of the organization but whose relationship with the organization is “employment-like”, for example, volunteers .
Judicial precedents to annul previous “acts of liberation”.
Additionally, in 2020, the Supreme Court of Victoria overturned a release deed signed by a victim of child sexual abuse, who had been paid $32,500 by the Catholic Church in 1996 in exchange for his silence and no further legal action.
This landmark decision paved the way for victims to overturn previous agreements made with the church and sue for damages.
Around 500 victims are believed to have signed similar release deeds, often for small sums of money, as part of the Catholic Church’s controversial “Melbourne response”.
The initiative was set up in 1996 by George Pell – who had his conviction for child sex offenses overturned on appeal to the High Court in 2020 – and has been heavily criticized for its paltry payments which did not reflect the severity of lifelong damage. inflicted on the victims, nor the ability of the Church to be financially responsible to the victims, given that the value of its assets in Australia alone is estimated at approximately $30 billion.
The Church’s response is extremely slow
Despite promises from the Vatican to tackle the problem of systemic child abuse that has surfaced not only in Australia but in many other countries, victims still say real change is slow.
The Church’s lack of action is evidenced by its refusal to address reporting issues, its reliance on acts with non-disclosure agreements and its culture of denial, as well as statements made by the upper echelons of the organization, including the pope himself who essentially blamed child sexual abuse on the “devil” rather than the perpetrators.
This conduct suggests to many that the organization is reluctant to genuinely recognize victims and agree to reforms that would reduce the likelihood of children being abused or perpetrators being empowered and excused.
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