CATHOLIC Church entities in Gippsland look likely to have to tackle legal action on several fronts, as yet more allegations emerge of historical child sexual offences.
Last week St Paul’s Catholic College for boys in Traralgon was targeted for a group action, today it’s been announced Warragul victims are being invited to participate in another group action, and Bairnsdale will be invited next week.
The Gippsland Times was the first to report legal action was being considered against Gippsland Catholic Church entities over historical child sex abuse allegations at St Patrick’s College in Sale in the 1970s.
Since that report on April 17, Shine Lawyers has been appointed to launch a group action for Sale, and multiple alleged St Pat’s victims have come forward.
Organiser and former St Patrick’s student, ‘Michael’ met and appointed new additional legal counsel last Wednesday, Rightside Legal from Melbourne, to deal with litigation currently being prepared against Gippsland Catholic entities.
The action will be overseen by the firm’s joint partners, Michael Magazanik and Grace Wilson. In addition to these, more claims of historical sexual abuse against Catholic Church entities are emerging from Mildura, Warrnambool, Bendigo, Shepparton, Horsham, Wangaratta, Wodondga and Ballarat.
If the claims proceed to successful group actions, the financial implications for the Catholic Church in Gippsland and beyond will be significant.
The Warragul action has arisen in response to police previously criminally charging two alleged Warragul Catholic paedophiles with child sex offences.
Volunteer ‘Michael’, who alleges he was sexually, physically and mentally abused at St Pats in Sale, is coordinating all the group actions. He said Warragul had “a terrible and shocking history”, with both a Catholic priest and Marist brother being criminally charged with child sexual abuse against primary school aged boys and girls.
Both died after being charged, but before their criminal hearings.
The latest developments come as Victoria last week passed new laws to plug a loophole to prevent unincorporated organisations from relying upon a legal technicality — known as the ‘Ellis defence’ — to avoid civil lawsuits. This includes religious organisations, and according to Michael, the results could be costly for them.
“A sexually abused teenager and a child attending schools in Victoria were recently awarded judgements of $1.27 million in 2015 and over $717,000 in 2017 (respectively) in fair and respectful damages, by impartial and independent Supreme Court judges,” he pointed out.
Rightside Legal joint partner Michael Magazanik said new Victorian laws would place Warragul survivors in a strong legal position.
“For too long churches and other religious institutions have been able to hide behind the law,” he said.
“Those days are ending.
“The Warragul survivors can demand full and proper compensation from the church bodies which enabled or failed to stop the abusers.”
Warragul Priest Dominic (Dan) Hourigan was charged with sexual penetration of a boy in 1995. He died three days later.
Police had also that year interviewed three other men from the Warragul parish about offences allegedly committed by Hourigan between 1978 to 1983.
Hourigan’s parishes in the Diocese of Sale included Warragul, Leongatha and Sale. He was also a former editor of the Catholic Life magazine, and a spiritual director for the Catholic ‘cursillo’ movement.
Warragul Marist Brother Malcolm Hall was charged in 1998 with multiple sex crimes against Warragul girls and boys. He also died before his court appearance.
In sworn police statements, his alleged victims stated they were aged between nine and 10 when they were abused.
Michael said the stories he was hearing were heartbreaking.
“It’s now clear that there are hundreds and hundreds of incredibly damaged and broken Catholics walking the streets of the diocese in despair,” he said.
He encouraged victims to make any enquiries via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
They can also phone Rightside Legal on 1300 765 702, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Former students and boarders of St Patrick’s College who wish to find out more information about the Sale group action can email Shine Lawyers at email@example.com or phone 1800 751 407.
Catholic Bishop of Sale, Bishop Pat O’Regan, said complainants’ legal representatives should make direct contact with the diocese so claims could be addressed within the proper framework. He said the diocese had in place a range of protocols to assist victims of abuse to make complaints, including contacting the diocese’s Professional Standards Office and the Towards Healing process established by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
“We maintain strict confidentiality of each victim and will not engage in the public forum,” he said.
People with information about child sexual abuse in an institutional context can also email the SANO Task Force firstname.lastname@example.org or phone the SANO Task Force on 1800 110 007. To report a child at immediate risk or danger, phone 000 or a local police station.
Survivors & Mates Support Network (SAMSN) is a not-for-profit organisation working to increase public awareness of the effects that childhood sexual abuse can have on men in their adult lives. For more information about SAMSN, visit www.samsn.org.au, which also has links to other related organisations.
Lifeline (phone 13 11 14) and Beyondblue (1300 22 4636) also offer support.