Corrs Chambers Westgarth
A Melbourne-based law firm which employs around 900 lawyers including 145 partners says it will end its relationship with the Catholic Church, after 50 years of representing the organisation in the context of claims of sexual abuse and other forms of impropriety.
The public statement by Corrs Chambers Westgarth says the firm is in the process of refocusing its direction and resources, but there are reports the decision stems from growing discontent within the firm about its perceived defence of clergy accused of child sexual abuse.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse heard than more than 4,000 allegations of child sexual abuse against 1800 Catholic Church figures.
One of the key problems it identified was that the organisation was able to cover up as well as enable continuing abuse by moving offenders from parish to parish, threatening to excommunicate those who reported alleged offences, relying on the seal of confession as a justification for failing to report matters to the police and paying off victims and their families through the use of contracts containing non-disclosure agreements prepared by lawyers.
The Royal Commission was also critical of the Church’s practice of repeatedly absolving perpetrators through the mechanism of the confessional, which in many instances gave them a feeling of being forgiven before going on to commit further abuses.
Priests have repeatedly vowed to maintain the secrecy of the confessional regardless of any change in the law, and in New South Wales the Coalition government refused to enact reforms which would compel members of the clergy to report crimes disclosed during confessions.
Until 2019, victims were powerless to commence civil proceedings against the Catholic Church.
But the NSW Government passed laws in late 2018, which came into effect on 1 January 2020 allowing victims to seek justice and sue unincorporated organisations, including churches.
The new laws effectively abolish the ‘Ellis Defence’which had allowed the Catholic Church impunity in respect of civil suits for decades – essentially its structure meant that there was no single ‘entity’ with overarching responsibility which could be sued.
Under the new laws, an institution must now identify a defendant with sufficient assets to pay any potential claim, or have the court appoint associated trustees who can access trust property.