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Church abuse crisis and the law

  • 14 March 2014

Reports from the Royal Commission this week have focused on the efforts of John Ellis to have his experience of sexual abuse as a teenage boy, perpetrated by a Catholic priest, acknowledged and adequately addressed by the Church. The Royal Commission hearing has heard a litany of factors involving legal issues and the internal workings of the Archdiocese of Sydney that must have had a profound impact on Ellis. His courage to continue to fight for justice is admirable.

The finding by the High Court that Australian law as it stands does not allow an individual to sue the Catholic Church is an untenable situation if our nation believes justice for individuals is important. The law will always have its limits, but the Ellis defence implies that no single part of the organisation to which the perpetrator Fr Duggan belonged — which conferred upon him the status and duty of a priest and to which he was bound by vows to obey and serve — is able to be held accountable in law for his illegal and immoral behaviour.

The complexity of the Church as an organisation often defies understanding, even by many who have spent their lives in religious vows or on the Church payroll. Canon Law provides mechanisms for separation into smaller organisations such as parishes and dioceses, and often these establish a civil legal identity by incorporating as an association or company. Yet all remain part of the Church. This legal separation of so many entities within the Church sometimes allows issues of justice and accountability to fall through the cracks.

Laws relating to incorporated bodies strive to protect the interests of those bodies, but may not pay much attention to the achievement of justice. Certainly the legal representatives acting on behalf of the Archdiocese of Sydney appear to have conducted themselves during the court process as if their sole purpose was to avoid any prospect of the Church being held accountable for the abuse suffered by Ellis.

Legal personnel are bound to work with the law as it is, yet they, like all people, must be endowed with an inner moral compass that reacts to obvious injustice unfolding before their eyes. How unfortunate not only for Ellis and the Church that the focus was on protecting the Church's resources rather than striving to achieve justice.

The comment to the Royal Commission by Ellis after his meeting in 2009 with Cardinal Pell