13 Dec 2010

Australian bishop makes rare admission of church's legal liability for rape of school girls

The Australian - July 12, 2010

Church accepts child rape liability

By Michael McKenna | The Australian

THE Catholic Church has made a sweeping admission of legal liability for the rape and abuse of girls at a Toowoomba primary school.

In one of the most comprehensive wins for victims of child abuse in Australia, Toowoomba bishop Bill Morris has formally admitted liability and opened the door to a massive compensation payout to 13 schoolgirls in a proposed mediated settlement to be overseen by former High Court judge Ian Callinan QC.

It is one of the few cases in Australia where an institution - either church or government - has not tried to dodge liability with legal loopholes.

The girls - aged nine and 10 at the time of their abuse - were raped or molested by veteran teacher Gerard Vincent Byrnes, who also served as the primary school's child protection officer in 2007 and 2008.

Byrnes has pleaded guilty to 46 sex abuse charges, including 10 counts of rape, and is awaiting sentence.

A parent of one of the young victims told The Australian that any settlement would have to involve full disclosure of the church's negligence in protecting the children and later attempts at a cover-up.

"I want everyone to know what they have done, how and why," she said. "They have to be held to account so that hopefully this won't happen again."

Last year, the principal of the Toowoomba school became the first person in Australia, and among only a handful worldwide, to be charged under laws mandating the reporting to police of any suspicions of sexual abuse involving a child.

The legal case could lead to a huge compensation payout - including compensatory and punitive damages.

A 2001 landmark case, involving the abuse of a former schoolgirl at the Toowoomba Preparatory School - which led to the resignation of governor-general Peter Hollingworth - led to a record $834,000 payout.

When contacted, the families' solicitor, Damian Scattini, of Slater & Gordon, said the admission of liability was a significant breakthrough.

"It is a welcome bit of sunshine from an often dark organisation who is known better for their denial and abandonment of victims," he said.

"Let's hope that their actions speak as loudly as their words in making this right and ensuring this never happens again."

Families of five of the 13 victims launched legal proceedings this year against the Toowoomba diocese.

In a letter to parents, Bishop Morris admitted liability under the Personal Injuries Proceedings Act 2002 and offered a "sincere apology" for the abuse of their children by Byrnes.

Bishop Morris proposed a mediation process, overseen by Mr Callinan, in a bid to resolve the legal claim as quickly as possible.

"I recognise the process of negotiating and settling claims can be stressful and worrying for the claimants and their families, and it is my hope that these matters can be resolved as considerately and expeditiously as possible for them," Bishop Morris said in a statement to The Australian.

"The families of the children who have not yet pursued formal claims will also be invited to participate in the proposed mediation process in the coming weeks."

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Australian families sue Catholic diocese for failing to report teacher sex abuse allegations to police


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