Thursday, December 12, 2013

Church told to erase admission

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The company, Catholic Church Insurances, dominated the negotiation of abuse claims, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard yesterday, instructing clerics to deny liability and dictating the amount of compensation and even counselling offered in response.

On one occasion, the commission heard, the company was consulted on a 1999 letter sent to the victim of a Brisbane priest who claimed to be terminally ill and saying she "needed to have sex with him before he died".

His victim, Joan Isaacs, had attempted to warn church officials about her abuse but was ignored, the commission heard, allowing the priest to abuse other children.

In CCI documents tendered in evidence, company manager Laurie Rolls wrote "I instructed Bishop (John) Gerry to remove from that letter" the words "I am sorry that you were not believed when you told other priests what had happened to you."

That particular sentence did not subsequently appear in the formal apology Ms Isaacs received from Bishop Gerry, the commission heard.

Other documents state "CCI will not move from the offer of $30,000" in compensation to Ms Isaacs and one senior cleric who met her was told to "express sorrow (but) avoid any suggestion the archdiocese is itself responsible".

In a written statement, Mr Rolls -- who was excused giving evidence in person due to ill health -- said CCI had a direct influence on the church's Towards Healing process, established in 1996 to respond to child sex abuse by priests.

The company "usually required an insured (church body) to make no admission of liability, it was wary of allowing apologies to be made and it required or encouraged technical (legal) defences when they were available," he said.

While this approach has changed over the years, another senior cleric who dealt with Ms Isaacs said he now regretted that the church had relied so heavily on the advice of CCI. 

"Beyond what could be done by lawyers and insurers, the church might have a responsibility there to help a person repair their life," Father James Spence said.

The archdiocese had itself declined to add any money to the $30,000 in compensation offered by the insurer, despite having access to about $154 million in a "development fund", he said.

Other documents tendered to the commission show Father Spence also sought legal advice on whether the confidentiality of the Towards Healing process could be used to deny access to church files if these files were sought by lawyers representing the priest's other victims.

"Is it too late or unethical to involve Towards Healing now and put our file under its umbrella? There may be sensitive material gathered in the future," one letter to the church's lawyers said.

Asked if he considered "that would have been a deceitful exercise", Father Spence replied "I'd really have to think about that pretty deeply because I don't know all the other practical points involved.

"I don't think I can make a judgment about being dishonest."

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