For the last 16 years, survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic Church officials in Victoria, Australia, had little to no legal recourse. But that has all changed now, as the government has closed a loophole that kept the church from being sued.
Now, that defense has been struck down, opening up the Church to legal challenges that parallel those of other companies and organizations.
The new law marks a significant shift for survivors of clergy abuse who, until now, have had to rely on the goodwill of the church to nominate a legal entity, like a bishop, who would agree to be sued.
Now, unincorporated organisations like religious groups must nominate a defendant with assets, capable of being sued.
Yes, you read that right. Up until last week, victims of abuse relied on the “goodwill” of the Church — the entity known for covering up abuse allegations, shuffling around offending priests in secret, and conducting corrupt internal “investigations” — to volunteer to cooperate.
Advocates for sex abuse victims have hailed the change, which is part of a wave of changes coming out of Australia since a royal commission began investigating institutional responses to child sex abuse allegations and documenting stories from survivors. The consensus seems to be that the change will bring in a new era of accountability.
According to Judy Courtin, a lawyer who represents victims of institutional abuse, the passage of the law represents a significant change to how the church will be held accountable.
“This defence which they’ve hidden behind … I would say has saved the church millions and millions of dollars,” Dr Courtin said.
“Victims have never been on an equal footing particularly in terms of the law, and so this now hopefully provides … an access to the courts that’s been denied them forever.”
Victoria’s Attorney-General, Martin Pakula, said it was a “momentous” change.
“We think the combination of this legislation and the legislation that removes the statute of limitations will make it so much easier for child abuse survivors to get appropriate compensation,” he said.
This is a big deal. Unfortunately, this “Ellis defense” is still a common tactic in other parts of Australia. Ellis himself says he hopes this major shift in Victoria, which is the continent’s most densely populated state, will encourage change that spreads like wildfire. I hope he’s right.
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