George Pell’s last offering on abuse by the Catholic Church

Long before it has concluded – years, perhaps – the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has achieved what must have been its ultimate goal. A few days before he was to appear at the inquiry, Cardinal George Pell announced the Catholic Church would no longer use the legal defence that bears his name: Ellis v Pell. Children abused by the church would finally be able to bring civil actions against it and be compensated for their suffering.

John Ellis had been a 13-year-old altar boy when Father Aidan Duggan began abusing him. The rapes would continue over years. Decades later, wretched with anxiety and self-harm, Ellis attempted to sue the church. He asked for $100,000 – compensation for the damaged life he led, for the job he had lost at a top law firm. About $1.5 million was spent ensuring he got nothing. The case ruined its plaintiff and saved the church untold millions.  Pell’s lawyers even pushed to have the victim pay their legal costs.

Ellis v Pell is important for its precedent. It created a legal fiction the church has relied on since: despite its huge wealth, the decision had it that the church was not a legal entity. It could not be sued. Its priests were not regarded as employees. It was no more incorporated than a neighbourhood knitting circle. 

The great hope for the royal commission was that its recommendations might force the states to disentangle the knot of laws that allowed the church to claim such nonsense – that allowed an organisation to look upon the children it had abused with cynicism, not as victims to be cared for but as costs to be avoided. Using Ellis was optional, of course. Some eschewed it. The Jesuits never pleaded the point. Nor did a handful of dioceses uncomfortable with the protection it afforded. But it was an option mostly used.

The commission has more to do. There are more victims to hear, more organisations to interrogate. Its recommendations must find ways to ensure no institution can become a harbour for paedophilia.

But it has already proved the essential purpose of a royal commission – an inquiry as much about recommendations as it is about pressure and light. Even as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was being announced by the Gillard government, the Catholic Church was pleading that it had been treated unfairly. “We’re not the only cab on the rank,” Pell said. The royal commission has shown that to be tragically true. But the commission has also forced the church to confront its own viciousness and evasion, and has seen it cowed.

The scope of the royal commission is much broader than the Catholic Church’s response to the abused among its number. But Ellis made sure the Catholic Church’s response was the most egregious. And now, it seems, it might be gone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 15, 2014 as "Pell’s last offering on abuse by church".

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