THE Catholic Church in Gippsland is set to become embroiled in a landmark class action to be brought by alleged victims of child abuse, which could run into millions of dollars.
The proposed action relates to alleged historical child sex and physical abuse offences at St Patrick’s College, Sale, many of which are said to have occurred in the 1970s when the school housed boarders.
Two St Patrick’s cases have already been prosecuted in the criminal system, with another case against a Marist Brother, alleging multiple victims, set to go to trial later this year.
Another criminal case was unable to proceed after the accused lay teacher died.
The class action, which will allege a failure in duty of care, will attract state and national attention, as this is expected to be the first class action lawsuit in Victoria against the Catholic Church under impending changes to state government legislation, which are anticipated to pass in the Legislative Council within weeks.
Under the new laws, both individuals and class action parties will be able to sue the church’s highly valuable property trusts, and other such structures, that were previously ‘untouchable’.
With at least 28 known reports of sexually and physically abused victims from St Pat’s, the class action is now at the ‘public notification’ stage, to encourage other St Pats victims to come forward.
St Pat’s Sale class action leader and lead plaintiff, ‘Michael’, said sexually and physically abused victims now finally had a chance to seek reasonable and acceptable compensation.
“As a fellow St Pat’s sexually and physically abused victim, I know firsthand the horrors and trauma that we’ve all been through,” he said.
“A nightmare it has been.
“That’s why I’ve been prepared to volunteer my time, particularly over the past three years, to help get justice for all our victims.
“It’s been a degrading, humiliating and heart breaking process for all of us abused victims to go through, after being shunned for decade after decade by the Catholic Church.”
The public awareness campaign is one of the final steps to lodging the class action lawsuit in the Victorian Supreme Court.
Michael believes there could be many other victims who have remained silent.
“They need to know it is now safe to come forward, even if their initial enquiries are anonymous,” he said.
He added victims who wanted to undertake their own legal actions and negotiations separately could still do so.
“But with a class action, there are many advantages to those victims who would prefer to take a less ‘confronting’ approach,” he added.
“We’ll have the best legal expertise in the country fighting our fight, on a no-win, no-fee basis.
“And no expensive litigation funders, either.”
Victims could be entitled to pain and suffering compensation alone of up to $500,000, but there is no legal impediment to compensation awards in the millions.
As this is expected to the first class action lawsuit to go before the Victorian Supreme Court under the proposed new legislation, Michael said his team was “disciplined and taking a highly detailed and methodical approach to every set of the process, to ensure winning this precedent-setting case”.
Michael said he had been in “productive discussions” with several law firms, including giants Slater and Gordon and Maurice Blackburn, and would soon be selecting a legal firm to run the class action.
In the meantime, he encouraged victims, on a strictly confidential basis, to email the volunteer class action manager firstname.lastname@example.org
“We’ll also be ensuring that collusion, an important legal issue, won’t be able to occur between our victims,” he added.
Michael said he was hopeful justice would prevail, so that victims could “put the nightmare behind them”.
Early last year, the Catholic Diocese of Sale was named Australia’s most prolific for child sexual abuse, with the highest proportion of alleged paedophile priests nationwide over 60 years.
According to a report, released by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 15.1 per cent of all Sale Diocese priests who ministered from 1950 to 2010 were named as alleged perpetrators, giving it the highest overall proportion of child sexual abusers of dioceses across Australia.
In February The Age newspaper reported its investigations had revealed the Catholic Church in Victoria was worth more than $9 billion, making it the biggest non-government property owner in the state — and much wealthier than it had admitted in evidence to major inquiries into child sexual abuse.
A six-month investigation by The Age found that the church misled the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse by grossly undervaluing its property portfolio, while claiming that increased payments to abuse survivors would likely require cuts to its social programs.
Figures extrapolated from a huge volume of Victorian council valuation data showed the church had more than $30 billion in property and other assets, Australia wide.
Based on these figures, The Age concluded the church was the largest non-government property owner, by value, in the state, and close to the largest in Australia, rivalling giant Westfield, with its vast network of shopping centres and other assets.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Church was approached for comment, but none was able to be issued at this time.