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Church legally liable for pre-1996 child sexual abuse

  • 22 October 2014

In August the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse turned its spotlight on the Melbourne Response, the protocol adopted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne after George Pell became the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. Much of the media attention was on Cardinal Pell’s video link appearance from Rome (pictured), where he is now overseeing Vatican finances as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. 

His critics understandably fixed on his comments about the common law, vicarious liability and the liability of truck owners for the wanton criminal act of any truck driver. This is the third time Cardinal Pell has appeared and been cross-examined about his role as a bishop in overseeing church attempts to put right the tragic consequences of child sexual abuse perpetrated by church personnel, including priests. As a result of his three appearances, there is now greater clarity about past practices, as well as greater precision about the unanswered questions for those seeking a better and safer future for all children in all institutions, including the Catholic Church. 

Reviewing Cardinal Pell’s evidence, I have concluded that we Catholics need to accept moral responsibility and legal liability for all child sexual abuse committed by clergy prior to 1996, regardless of what might be the moral or legal position after 1996 when improved measures for supervision and dismissal of errant clergy were put in place. Ultimately, the High Court of Australia will be asked to reconsider the law of vicarious liability. But in relation to any abuse occurring before 1996, there is no way that we can argue that we had structures in place which gave priority to the well being of vulnerable children. That is why we are collectively responsible as a social institution. Reviewing Cardinal Pell’s evidence I have also concluded that he made a fair fist of trying to fix things after he became archbishop in 1996. Credit should be given where it is due, even though we are yet to hear why he decided not to co-operate with the other Australian bishops in drawing up a more robust national protocol. I have no doubt that further improvements can be made, both to the Melbourne response and the national protocol Towards Healing. Hopefully Justice McClellan and his fellow commissioners will be able to provide a politically achievable blueprint for all institutions.

1996 was a significant year, and not just because that was when George