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Court says Catholic Church mistreated Australian abuse survivors

by Will Hobbs

The Catholic Church has suffered a loss in an Australian legal case for its use of the deaths of paedophile priests to impede survivors' pursuit of justice.

The high court ruled against the church's practice of seeking permanent stays in historical abuse cases on the grounds of delay, death of perpetrators, and loss of records, arguing that these factors prevent fair trials.

The church has been increasingly relying on permanent stays to defeat active claims or offer low settlements to survivors. This strategy has been severely detrimental to survivors who are already vulnerable.

Survivor groups argue that the church's approach contradicts the intentions of Australian parliaments, which eliminated time limits for civil claims in recognition of the significant barriers faced by survivors in coming forward.

According to the Guardian, one survivor, known as GLJ, had her compensation case permanently stayed by the Lismore diocese. GLJ alleges she was abused by Father Clarence Anderson, who died before her complaint was made.

Anderson died in 1996, well before GLJ’s complaint, and the Lismore diocese argued it was put in an unfair position, unable to properly investigate the allegation or mount a defence. The church says it was left “utterly in the dark” on whether the abuse occurred.

But GLJ’s lawyers say the church had held evidence about his abuse of other children from 1971, the year of his defrocking, and had ample opportunity to investigate his conduct more broadly in the 25 years prior to his death. Instead, it did nothing, her lawyers say.

The high court on Wednesday ruled in GLJ’s favour, saying permanent stays should only be granted in “exceptional” cases.

In their decision, chief justice Susan Kiefel and justices Stephen Gageler and Jayne Jagot said any other use of stays would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

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