Sex abuse justice cannot be fast-tracked


Victims of church sexual abuse have suffered a setback, with reports that the NSW Victims Rights and Support Bill proposes a statute of limitations for people claiming compensation for violence including child abuse or sexual assault. Under the legislation, applications must be made within ten years of the act or, if the victim was a child when it occurred, within ten years after they turn 18.

The Catholic Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council issued a media release on Thursday urging the NSW Government to reconsider the change because of the special circumstances of sexual abuse victims.

The Council's CEO Francis Sullivan said that for many reasons, victims of childhood sexual abuse often do not report the crimes for many years, and that to place any time limit on disclosure 'seems like an inappropriate way to encourage victims to come forward'.

To come to terms with such a traumatic experience as sexual abuse — and to resolve to act — is a delicate process that is likely to be undermined if there is a clock ticking.

The victim may lack the psychological strength to meet the deadline for reporting the crime, and end up feeling worse as a result. Sometimes a church culture intimidates victims into remaining silent, and this has often led to adult victims waiting until their parents have died before reporting the crime. 

Following the announcement of the Royal Commission, there was widespread concern that the scale of the response would overwhelm the process, but there is general acceptance that it should not be rushed. While the Commission itself is not involved in prosecution and sentencing of offenders, the state court systems need to work in harmony with the Commission. Legislation should provide for courts to act expeditiously in order to get their job done, but a ten year statute of limitations is likely to get in the way of a just outcome. 

Pat Walsh, who worked with East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), wrote in Eureka Street last year that the CAVR was faced with similar challenges but opted to take a victim-friendly approach that 'informed every aspect of the CAVR's design, structure, operation and reporting'.

'Its enabling legislation required the Commission "to assist in restoring the dignity of victims" and it employed a number of strategies to achieve this. ... The centrepiece of this victim-friendly approach was listening to victims.'

Listening to victims involves waiting until they are able to speak. If they are forced to speak before they are ready, they may undermine the justice system by speaking half-truths or declining the opportunity to report the crime. It's often said justice delayed is justice denied. It can also be true that justice hastened is justice denied.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. Trauma image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, sex abuse, Francis Sullivan, Child Abuse Royal Commission, statute of limitations



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Existing comments

Michael, Can you tell us what time limits are set by the current legislation, please? Are they the same as clause 40 the new bill provides?
Ginger Meggs | 10 May 2013

Unfortunately there are mundane considerations re changed legislation: "Howard Brown, a member of the NSW Victims Advisory Board which recommended the changes, said the old bill ''has been a farce - it is $300 million in debt''."]SMH[9/5/13]
fr john george | 11 May 2013

Forensic considerations in tolling statutes of limitations: Motivated forgetting[pot of gold at end of judicial rainbow-ed jg] and repressed memories have become a very controversial issue within the court system. Unlike most American states, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have no statute of limitation to limit the prosecution of historical offenses. Therefore, legal decision-makers in each case need to evaluate the credibility of allegations that may go back many years. It is nearly impossible to provide evidence for many of these historical abuse cases. It is therefore extremely important to consider the credibility of the witness and accused in making a decision regarding guiltiness of the defendant.[52] One of the main arguments against the credibility of historical allegations, involving the retrieval of repressed memories, is found in false memory syndrome. False memory syndrome claims that through therapy and the use of suggestive techniques clients mistakenly come to believe that they were sexually abused as children.[51] In the United States, the Statute of Limitations requires that legal action be taken within three to five years of the incident of interest. Exceptions are made for minors, where the child has until they reach eighteen years of age.[53] [Wiki] .
fr john george | 12 May 2013

If the proposed statute of limitations is tied to budgetary considerations this is a very sorry state indeed. I would agree that people who are recovering from abuse of any kind hardly need to hear a clock ticking on their recovery. It may very well exacerbate the stress.
Pam | 13 May 2013

Great article Michael.I agree with your comments Truth is no search for justice should be fast tracked.After 28 years in seeking it in so mnany ways I would add that it is never too late to try either.
Anthony Kerin | 13 May 2013

A good article Michael. Not only does justice delayed or hastened mean justice denied in cases of sex abuse, but I believe it also represent further abuse.
John Whitehead | 13 May 2013

I find this move by NSW Parliament extraordinary. Actually I am outraged and very disappointed. While States in America have been gradually winding back their Statutes of Limitation clauses to allow victims to come forward when they are ready, NSW has done the reverse! Let's be clear about sexual abuse and exploitation, particularly when perpetrated within the Catholic clerical culture: victims take a long long time to realise and recognise that they are just that; victims. The trauma of what a victim experiences, be they child or adult, is so great that most do bury the experience for a very long time and do not allow themselves (as a form of self protection) to face what has happened for a very long time. The norm is about twenty years. I can testify to this from personal experience. One goes through a betrayal phase, a burial phase, and finally, upon regognition of what has occurred, ie gross abuse of power and sexual exploitation, one finds the courage to come forward, reveal the perpetrator and begin the period of personal resurrection phase. This entire process can take between 20 and 40 years. NSW parliamentarians need to get some expert psychological advice on the incredible harm they are going to cause by forbidding the majority of victims, who will take much longer than 10 years to come forward, to be offered justice. As I said at the beginning, I find this Statute Of Limitations outrageous and a mere money saving exercise. Most victims will now be revictimised if this Bill is passed. And I thought we were finally getting somewhere with all this! Wishful thinking or more naivety on my part it seems. sigh...
Jennifer Herrick | 13 May 2013

The proposal to put in a limitation period is sensible. How can a person wrongly accused properly defend himself or herself after 20 years when witness die,memories fade and documents can no longer be found. Those accused have a right to natural justice. Never forget that important principle.
Rob Colquhoun | 13 May 2013

Ginger Meggs, Australia does not have any form of Statute of Limitations currently which was an enlightened procedure; NSW is now going back to the dark ages,to 10 years, which will effectively cut out the vast majority of victims from being granted justice. As I said earlier, most victims will now be revictimised in NSW.
Jennifer Herrick | 13 May 2013

A bit like the false memory syndrome of priests who've forgotten if they molested someone, Father George? Let's not forget that the royal commission is not a criminal court session prosecuting individual cases, but a look at the overall institutional response from institutions.
AURELIUS | 13 May 2013

Fr John George has introduced a dubious straw man into the argument. The question is not the *repression* of memories by and large. Rather it is that the damage done to the victims’ psyche is profound and long-lasting as Fr Mullins has pointed out. The abusers’ theft of victims’ self-esteem and ensuring that the victims blame themselves for their own abuse, are powerful reasons for victims suffering in silence. FINALLY, a serious cancer within the church and other institutions is being addressed and the victims should be given the time they need to obtain justice. Perhaps we all need to start a petition to that effect? Certainly those accused should be given a fair hearing. However, very few complaints of sexual abuse have been made by only a single person against an individual priest. Whilst such a complaint should be taken seriously in the first instance, the fact that MANY individuals have, in *private*, reported abuse by particular priests gives those reports weight and cannot be simply written off as attempts at “gold-digging”. The Church’s response to complaints about sexual abuse should be in the spirit of the loving and compassionate Christ, not a coldly legalistic one that denies victims their humanity and the truth.
Patricia R | 13 May 2013

The problem for many victims, Rob Colquhoun, is that their memories *cannot* fade. Perhaps if they did, fewer would have committed suicide as a consequence of their abuse, and more would be able to lead lives untroubled by the burden of abuse. Jennifer Herrick's (sad and distressing) response to Fr Mullin's article should give you pause.
Patricia R | 13 May 2013

Thanks Jennifer for clarifying the current situation. I'm in full agreement with you and Michael. I note with wonder that the explanatory note gives no explanation or justification for why this fundamental change has been proposed. The argument put by Rob Colquhoun for time limits seem weak to me. Yes, it is harder to defend a case as time goes by, but it is also harder to prosecute, so that the accused is in no greater danger of conviction just because of time. Accused have a right to natural justice, just as the accusers, but the accused also have the presumption of innocence. Nor am I persuaded by the arguments of Fr John George about the credibility of evidence based on memory. Juries, properly instructed, are quite capable of dealing with these issues.
Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2013

Rob, your comment is hurtful and insulting to victims who necessarily go through a normal psychological "burial" period as a direct reaction to their trauma. Your comments seem not to be aware of psychological literature available which explains why it takes the majority of victims far longer than ten years to come forward.
Jennifer Herrick | 13 May 2013

My abuser had nothing to do with Church. He was someone I met by chance, on the way home from school. From personal experience, I know that a young child may not understand what has been done, but experiences an awareness that something has happened that is not right, hence the feeling of guilt. They may go into denial, as I did, and not think about it at all for many years, only to have significant life experiences trigger the memory. Coming to terms with what has happened is likely to be a very long process that may continue long after the victim has died. More than fifty years later, the birth of a grandchild can trigger the painful memory. There can be no time limit on something that one can only come to terms with, never completely forget. On the other hand, victims need to be realistic about what can be done for them after so much time has passed.
I prefer not to be named this time | 13 May 2013

Patricia R False memory syndrome[FMS] is no straw man,but an issue preoccupying governments, courts,legal and psychiatric studies and praxis
fr john george | 13 May 2013

I was sexually abused at 10 years of age and I first talked about it and had counselling at 41 years of age. This was after going through a life of drugs, booze and broken marriages. The Assistant Commissioner of Victoria Police recently gave evidence at the Victorian Government Inquiry into Child sex abuse that statistically, it is not reported for at least 24.5 years after the abuse. The laws should at least reflect this and the statue of limitations of claims for child abuse should be abolished.
Brian Cherrie | 13 May 2013

just one comment about the heading of the article Michael. I think it could be entitled also Sexual Abuse Justice can't be Short tracked, rather than Fast tracked (taking the perspective of the victims not the Government) ....
Jennifer Herrick | 13 May 2013

Fr John George, false memory syndrome certainly preoccupies those who wish to resist restitution. How true.
Jennifer Herrick | 14 May 2013

Michael I am old and perhaps not very bright but what is the Commission going to do about all the admissions by the Church and other institutions of crimes committed forty and fifty years ago? I know that we saw things differently then but these victims are hurting NOW and they must be heard and believed and the institutions must admit that they have been obstructing the Law of Our Land. Surely someone can have this statute of limitations altered again and even removed altogether in this special case.
Mahdi Wilson | 14 May 2013

Patricia R, a priest friend of mine was arraigned on 11 charges of student CSA. this was reported on Australia wide TV [his reputation still in tatters]. He was found not guilty. The 11 students under close cross examination displayed gross inconsistencies, with vindictive conspiracy at work. [Multiple accusers can attract plausible lynch mobs too!]
fr john george | 14 May 2013

The not guilty verdict[cf last post] was not announced on Australia wide TV[the priest left behind as a psychological beached whale, the rest of his life-he is not the only beached whale[one behind bars still]
fr john george | 15 May 2013

So Fr John George, what's the point that you're are making? That people shouldn't be charged because they might be found not guilty? Or that 'FMS' leads to 'vindictive conspiracy'? Surely not! But I can't see that your friend's experience, regrettable though it might be, can be considered an argument in favour of a statute of limitations. Have you considered that your friend's experience might be an example of the collateral damage associated with the failings of his institution and that his institution should accept responsibility for that?
Ginger Meggs | 15 May 2013

Mr Ginger, please explain how the 'institution' was responsible for collateral damage when Father was proven NOT GUILTY on 11 counts!!
fr john george | 15 May 2013

Sorry Fr. John George, I obviously didn't express myself clearly enough. I'll try again. Priests and others have committed abuses. The Church has sought to cover those abuses. Eventually, the extent of abuse and cover-up saw the light of day. The general response of the public is one of dismay and disgust. Complaints are made to the police and charges are laid. Some of those are proven in court, some are not. Some of those found not guilty may, understandably if they are truly guiltless, feel aggrieved. So far, I don't think I've said anything with which you would disagree. So whose fault is it that the guiltless who are found not guilty have been subjected to trial? The magistrate, who sent the matter to trial because he believed there was a case to answer? The prosecutor, who who reviewed the police evidence and thought there was a case to put? The police who gathered the evidence? Or the Church itself which, by seeking to cover up real crimes, created an atmosphere when those cover-ups were exposed that led to all priests - good and bad - being tarred - rightly or wrongly - with the same brush, or to put it another way, when the proverbial hits the fan anyone close by is likely to suffer. Isn't that what is meant by 'collateral damage'? I think Mr Mullins understands that, and he understands that any attempt to thwart the laying of charges just because a lot of time has elapsed will be counterproductive to the victims of abuse, to the Church itself, and to all the good people still in the Church.
Ginger Meggs | 15 May 2013

Mr Ginger Sir you left off the Swiss guards on your 'blame litany'!
fr john george | 16 May 2013

Sorry again Fr John George. I'm obviously having trouble expressing myself. Let me put it simply this time, and get back to the point of Michael Mullins article. At the very start, he says 'Victims of church sexual abuse have suffered a setback, with reports that the... Bill proposes a statute of limitations for people claiming compensation for violence including child abuse or sexual assault', and then he argues the case. Like most of the respondents to this article, I agree with Michael. From your comments, I get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that you don't agree with Michael. Do I read you correctly, or not?
Ginger Meggs | 16 May 2013

I repeat Mr Meggs Sir, I have simply noted grave issues re statute of limitations[viz.economic disaster and forensic psychiatric flaws re FMS, plus propensity for innocent priest to rot in jail: "Rev. Gordon J. MacRae, sentenced to 33½ to 67 years, has been in the New Hampshire State Prison For Men since 1994 on abuse charges. Newly released signed statements in a recent court motion contend that the primary accuser, Thomas Grover, made up the accusations to extract money from the Church."
fr john george | 16 May 2013

Ginger Meggs, you have been been very patient. Of course your points are well made and quite clear to those who wish to understand the gross injustice that will incurr when thousands and thousands of cases of abuse will be wiped from the slate because, as John George will have it, a few may be wrongly brought to trial (by police or by media). but numbers of lives lost do not matter do they? No. Unless its numbers countered in dollars! Because that is what this Bill is all about. But still there is hope. Forums are already being run to counter this willfully despicable Bill. Therein lies the real numbers!
Jennifer Herrick | 17 May 2013

Jennifer Herrick ought note that I have not mentioned my support of bill re statute of limitations but simply drew attention to some significant aspects of the debate; thus findings of multiple studies performed between 1987 and 1995 suggested that the rate of USA false allegations ranged from up to 35% of reported child sexual abuse cases. I regard this as important in any such debate,however dealt with legally. And needs to be kept in mind lest innocent rot in prison for life.
fr john george | 17 May 2013

John George ought note that I have not mentioned his non-support of the bill in any direct form but since he has raised this issue I would note that a number of responses to his many comments have inferred that he indeed is for this bill. If such an inference is in error then John George needs to make clear just where he does stand re the Bill being carried or not and why. I note John George often uses statistics from the USA. This has no relevance to the immediate NSW scene unless he can prove otherwise with NSW statistics. John George says he is concerned about innocents rotting in prison. Firstly, no - one rots in NSW prisons. I ask John George to explain exactly how he believes a person actually "rots" in a NSW prison. Secondly, I do not hear John George in any of his comments on this article give any acknowledgement of compassion or empathy for the thousands of abused who do in fact rot inside themselves, this fact being supported by widespread psychological literature. If John George wants proof of this he need only turn to the adequate Australian and overseas psychological literature on this subject, as well as judicial and policing literature. What does in fact stop the rot is being able to come forward when the psyche of the victimised person allows it to be externalised, usually, according to academic research around about twenty years after the last occurrence of the abuse. I would like to hear if John George can extend his concern and compassion to the hundreds of thousands of abuse victms who need their own rot to be stooped chiefly through just theological, pastoral, and judicial systems. If Statutes of Limitations is the way to go, I would ask John George to explain how this is just to the vast majority whose psychologically abused condition prevents them from coming forward until well after ten years, and how this accords with Jesus' teaching?
Jennifer Herrick | 17 May 2013

RE Fr George's quoted statistic: " false allegations ranged from up to 35% of reported child sexual abuse cases." Perhaps Fr George can explain the evidence given to the Victorian Inquiry by Mr O'Callagahn QC, the church's "independent Commissioner" who wrote: "If it turns out that the complaint is not established, and this has only occurred very rarely, ... ..." and "Since the commencement of the Melbourne Response to 30 June 2012, 330 relevant complaints have been made that fall within the Terms of Reference of this Inquiry (254 complaints by males and 76 complaints by females),1 Of these: o 304 complaints were upheld (234 complaints by males and 70 complaints by females); o 10 complaints were not substantiated; and o 16 complaints were undetermined as at 30 June 2012" (Refer Victorian Parliamentary Committee web pages "Right of Reply") So Fr George, please justify your extraordinary claims for the prevalence of "false memory syndrome" and explain why even Mr O'Callagahan's findings differ so markedly from your response.
Jim Boyle | 17 May 2013

John George, 'lest the innocent rot in prison for life' .. Victims such as Jennifer and myself have to live in a prison of memories. Yesterday whilst shopping I saw a young man who reminded me of my abuser from 1973 in Kemps Creek. I am 58 not 18 and live miles from that place but the memories are a life long prison sentence.
Paul Ward | 17 May 2013

Jennifer,the basic question re false memory syndrome, and false accusations, re child abuse is: 'in protecting the innocent, how not to sacrifice the innocent?'
fr john george | 17 May 2013

Indeed protecting the innocent is the key, John George, indeed it is. The vast vast majority of innocent are not the accused. Jim we await a response to your poignant questions. We await..
Jennifer Herrick | 17 May 2013

Jim Boyle ought note that Mr O'Callaghn QC works within church response 'in house' protocols that may independently out of court uphold a complaint even attimes yorecounselling AVOIDING court resolution [versus 'in court' tested allegations].Thus his 'personal' highly competent Church response judgements resulting in ex gratis pay outs,apologies etc is far far removed from a full blown state judicial process resulting in jail sentences.[I suspect the soft core has hardened more recently] You have confused outside court relatively softcore resolution with hard core in court convictions[or at least clarify!]
fr john george | 18 May 2013

Jennifer H. in our global village,it well behooves us to note statistics and trends in similar societies[terrorism,economic shifts religious and ethical attitudes] Moreover,it is at best gratuitous to suggest I lack compassion for children abused. Re rotting in prison. Contact Fr MaCrae[cited] and ask what it is like facing 67 years in New Hampshire prison[even if they can watch TV and do exercise. Re 'Statute' I am looking at all sides and am presently undecided,frankly being hemiplegic bed ridden,my decision would carry zilch impact.
fr john george | 18 May 2013

John George I stand by my statement. One cannot justify definitive statements about a local environment or scenario using non-local statistics. One should only use such statistics in this way as general yardsticks and as such they may be used for both comparison and contrast. This is basic to statistical theory. Statistics from supposedly similar but non-identical situations cannot be simply transplanted holus bolus to support ones opinion on a local matter. Of course if the two scenes are so closely aligned one why would one not use local statistics to support opinions about locals situations and local scenarios? Each time someone in this dialogue has asked you a question you have either not answered it or used support from a different milieu.
Jennifer Herrick | 18 May 2013

Jennifer! Mr Boyle's statistics lack credibility as they are not verifiable by a court/jury/bench/bar rigor but by a presently highly contested church 'in house' process.
fr john george | 21 May 2013

ah John George so you do not accept O'Callaghan is independent as he claims?! aha!
Jennifer Herrick | 29 May 2013

Just noticed your Aha! aha! argument: Jennifer. MR O'Callaghan does not claim an equal certitude as derives from full court process his is a lower certitude then bench/bar and Jury He would recognise the level of his certitude.[there are myriad levels of certitude]
fr john george | 12 August 2013

By the way! "Child abuse victims exempted from time limits in new law"[c.30/5/13]
Father John George | 13 August 2013


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