FTER more than a decade of damage control over the sexual abuse ofchildren, the churches are still picking up the pieces. Spectacularrevelations are few and far between these days, but look no furtherthan the plight of Adelaide's Anglicans to see that many dioceses willgo on compensating victims for years to come.
In the City of Churches, Anglicans face servicing a $9 million loanthat's needed to finance payouts to more than 70 alleged victims ofpedophile church workers. More than 30 in that group have received$4.5million collectively after accusing former church youth workerRobert Brandenburg of abuse. Brandenburg committed suicide on the eveof his arrest in 1999.
Archbishop Jeffrey Driver will oversee a lengthy program offinancial recovery that will involve a 10-year levy of 1 per cent ofincome, to be paid by parishioners, and asset sales including thetennis court at his historic residence, worth up to $2 million, and achurch camp site in the Barossa Valley.
It is not the first time churches have had to sell off their assetsto make up the shortfall in funds available for payouts to victims ofpedophiles: the Anglican diocese of Tasmania sold its bishop'sresidence for a similar purpose.
In August, arguably the most notorious Anglican case was settledwhen Beth Heinrich was paid $100,000 in compensation for sexual abuseshe claims began in 1954, perpetrated by then church warden DonaldShearman, in Forbes, NSW. She was in her mid-teens at the time and herrelationship with Shearman dominated her life. Although shesubsequently married and had five children, she later lived withShearman and miscarried his baby before finally breaking away from him.
Shearman, now 80, went on to become the youngest Anglican bishop inAustralia, and the first to be defrocked after Heinrich's story becamepublic.
The Bishop of Bathurst, Richard Hurford, wrote Heinrich a letter inwhich the church apologised unreservedly for Shearman's "sexual abuseand moral corruption of a minor". But Shearman was not the only bishopto take a fall over the tragedy. Notoriously, then governor-generalPeter Hollingworth, who had been archbishop of Brisbane when Heinrichfirst complained about Shearman in 1995, also came unstuck in thescandal.
In a television interview in 2002, Hollingworth defended Shearmanwith the fateful words: "There was no suggestion of rape or anythinglike that, quite the contrary. My information is that it was the otherway round." Outrage followed and Hollingworth resigned in May 2003.
It was Hollingworth's second damaging controversy: the first hadbeen a year earlier over whether he had responded adequately tovictims' needs when it came to light that there had been sexual abuseat the Toowoomba Preparatory School in 1990. In December 2001, aSupreme Court jury ordered the Anglican diocese of Brisbane to pay morethan $830,000 damages to a female former student of the school who hadbeen sexually abused by the boarding master.
The court case and the size of the payout left the Anglicans shaken."That scared everybody," recalls the Sydney Anglican diocese'sprofessional standards unit director Philip Gerber. He dates the flurryof victim claims on the churches from the mid to late '90s, triggeredby the Wood royal commission into the NSW police force, which releaseda report on pedophilia in 1997, and to the Toowoomba and Shearmancases.
Church lawyer Rodger Austin notes the rise in reporting of sexualabuse cases reflected a societal trend towards troubled people seekingcounselling or family therapy. "Once they were able to talk about it toa counsellor, to acknowledge it, that changed things," he says. "Oncethat started to happen, people did have the courage to come forward."
But although most cases may have dated from the mid-'90s, victims'groups were forming earlier than that. Broken Rites Australia datesfrom 1992 and opened a telephone hotline for victims in 1993, staffedby volunteers who are survivors of church-related sexual abuse.
About 90 per cent of the victims who have contacted the organisationsince 1993 have been from a Catholic background and more than half havebeen males who were abused as children.
It is a problem, Gerber says, that has occurred in the vast majorityof dioceses in the country, and metropolitan dioceses occasionallycontribute some of the costs in settlements made by less cashed-uprural or regional parishes.
For example, the Sydney and Grafton dioceses helped with the payout to Heinrich, although Bathurst bore the brunt.
Although those emboldened by reports of former victims successfullyholding the churches to account for its sins over previous decades havestepped forward, innocent people also have been caught up in themomentum. The best known of these is George Pell, who stood down fromhis role as Archbishop of Sydney in August 2002 while claims he hadsexually molested a 12-year-old boy 41 years earlier were investigated.He was cleared in October that year.
Pell's biographer Tess Livingstone quotes his statement from thattime at length, including his reference to the ordeal as those "darkweeks", and the strength he found in "the great Christian teachingsabout suffering, death and resurrection".
The Catholic Church made some significant payouts, including one in2002 when the St John of God Order paid $3.6 million to 24 men withintellectual disabilities for abuse they suffered in residential careunits in Melbourne. Another potential multimillion payout could be instore for the Sydney Catholic diocese if lawyer John Ellis succeeds inhis claim. It hinges on abuse he alleges took place when he was ateenage altar boy in Sydney's western suburbs in the '70s. Claimingrepressed memory, Ellis has mounted a civil action against thearchdiocese, seeking redress against it although the allegedperpetrator, Aidan Duggan, is now dead.
While churches have fought actions brought against alleged pedophilepriests and religious workers in the past, it is the exception ratherthan the rule these days. They have also introduced or finetunedpolicies that enable them to adopt a methodical approach to complaintsand the needs of those making them.
In the Catholic Church this emerged in 1996 as the "Towards Healing"process, which is observed in every diocese except Melbourne, which hasits own set of protocols. Since then more than 1000 cases have beenbrought to "some level of resolution", Catholic national office forprofessional standards executive officer Julian McDonald says.
"Towards Healing does not attempt to say we give victimscompensation but payments have been made in recognition of the factthat some harm has been done," McDonald says. Payments are not cappedand there is no national register of how much the church has paid toaggrieved parties.
The Anglicans also operate a set of professional standards unitsacross all dioceses that manage grievances. Gerber concedes Sydney'sfinancial strength in terms of assets and income has been a boon. "Wehave not had to put any particular funding aside for it," he says.
Gerber estimates about 20 cases have been paid out for various sumsunder the scheme, but none has topped $75,000. He says ballpark figuresfor the financial cost to the Anglican Church in Australia tocompensate for sexual abuse total about $15 million. This includes $3million in setting up systems and processes to deal with victims andcomplaints, $500,000 to $1 million in counselling and meeting immediateneeds such as paying bills or paying for retraining, and about$10million in legal expenses including compensation payouts.
"It's tapering off now," he says of the claims. "As far as you cantell, people who wanted to raise issues in the main have done so,although others may come forward."
What's happening in Australia is reflected in overseas dioceses,particularly in the US, where there is no shortage of staggeringclaims. In 2002 the US Catholic hierarchy held hastily convened talkswith John Paul II in Rome over how to manage the worsening situation.In a society as litigious as the US, the realisation that potentiallycatastrophic financial implications would follow was swift. That year,the Catholic Church in Boston paid $US30 million to settle claims ofabuse against one priest.
In 2004 the Catholic archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, dramaticallyfiled for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which effectively protected it from a$US155 million action involving 50 molestation charges against onepriest. Two abuse trials had been set to begin just hours after theannouncement but were halted. During the previous four years thearchdiocese and its insurers had paid $US53million for the more than100 claims, the highest per-capita payments made by any diocese.
A year ago, Canada's Supreme Court ruled on a case involving tens ofthousands of indigenous people who were sexually abused through manyyears in schools run jointly by the federal government and thechurches. Its decision was that they should receive 75 per cent oftheir compensation from government and 25 per cent from the churches.
Gerber believes payouts in Australia will never come within range ofthose in North America: "It's an American phenomenon; even one of ourbiggest cases was only $800,000. We have probably, by not beinglitigious, reduced the bill."
Jill Rowbotham is The Australian's religious affairs writer.