Thursday, February 08, 2024

Families of abuse victims may sue Australian dioceses for damages, High Court rules

Australia's highest court has rejected the Catholic Church's bid to avoid paying damages to the father of a choirboy allegedly sexually abused by Cardinal George Pell.

The father, who cannot be named, claims he suffered nervous shock after learning of allegations that the cardinal sexually abused his now-deceased son in the mid-1990s.

Pell maintained his innocence over the allegations until his death in January 2023, and had five convictions for abusing the man's son and another boy overturned by the High Court in 2020.

The man, known as RWQ for legal reasons, is seeking damages against the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and Pell in Victoria's Supreme Court.

The church had tried to excuse itself from the case by using a legal loophole, the Ellis defence, and arguing the man could not sue as he was not the direct victim of the alleged sexual abuse.

But in August 2022, the Supreme Court found he could sue the church as a secondary victim of child abuse.

The church challenged this ruling in the state's Court of Appeal, which was rejected.

The clergy then took its challenge to the High Court, filing paperwork in October, however special leave to appeal was refused today.

Lawyers for the father said it was a "monumental outcome" for families of clergy sexual abuse victims.

"The highest court in the country has today affirmed the church can be held liable for that suffering, and we encourage families left devastated by abuse to pursue justice of their own," Shine Lawyers chief legal officer Lisa Flynn said.

"The church has made considerable efforts to exploit the legal system to extricate itself from these proceedings, and we are glad to see another loophole closed."

The ruling means the father can continue with his claim against the church, which is progressing through Victoria's Supreme Court.