The Catholic church is attempting to stop one of its own priests from suing it for child abuse because he took too long to come forward, prompting criticism that it has learned nothing from the royal commission.
The Lismore diocese plans to seek a permanent stay in the New South Wales supreme court to prevent one of its priests from suing for abuse he suffered as a 12-year-old altar boy.
Court documents allege the altar boy was abused in the 1960s by Clarence “David” Anderson, a now-dead priest. The abuse is said to have occurred at a church on the north coast of New South Wales, which sat on the grounds of a boarding school.
Anderson was a priest and religious teacher and the boy was a boarder. On one occasion, the accuser alleges he was abused in the sacristy of the church, where he had been the altar boy, following morning mass.
The Catholic church is defending the claim and last week wrote to the plaintiff’s lawyer, Mark Barrow of Ken Cush and Associates, demanding the priest drop the case by 6 February, warning it will pursue him for legal costs if he doesn’t.
The church argued that the time between the alleged offences and the court case denied it any chance of a fair trial.
“The delay in plaintiff [sic] bringing his claim (especially as he is a Priest in the Diocese) has permanently prejudiced our client’s (and arguably all defendants) capacity to investigate, respond to and defend the allegations contained in the statement of claim,” the church said in a letter seen by the Guardian.
“Your client is invited to withdraw the statement of claim, and if he does so prior to 6 February 2020 our client shall not seek a costs order.”
The case, first reported by the Newcastle Herald this week, is thought to be the first known example of a priest suing the Catholic church in Australia for abuse.
It is the second time in recent months that the diocese has attempted to have an abuse case thrown out due to delay.
In December, the Lismore diocese successfully applied to permanently stay a case brought by a woman who alleged she was abused in the 1940s by a priest named John Curran, who has since died.
The church’s approach to delay conflicts with findings of the child abuse royal commission.
The royal commission found it was common for survivors to disclose their abuse and lodge a civil claim, often because they blame themselves for the abuse and are “grossly embarrassed and ashamed, all of which make it difficult for them to tell anyone about the abuse for many years”.
The royal commission found almost 60% of victims were unable to disclose during childhood.
It said the average time between alleged offending and a court case being lodged against the Catholic church was 33 years.
The royal commission also recommended the church take steps to better account for the delayed disclosure of abuse, including keeping records for longer.
It recommended that limitation periods be removed for child sexual abuse cases, but that institutions retain the power to apply for permanent stays due to delay.
Barrow said the church’s approach to the case showed the royal commission had meant little to the diocese.
“After the royal commission and what has been said and done, even with reforms we are back to square one, because after the abuse was covered up for so long the Bishop of Lismore is using that delay to avoid justice and pay fair compensation,” he said in a statement.
“Not enough has been done to hold to account bishops who continue to damage survivors of abuse.”
The diocese was approached for comment.