Archbishop admits 'spectacular bungling' of child abuse case

The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane has admitted to “spectacular bungling” and “drastic failure” in dealing with a child sex abuse victim and flagged his willingness to revisit cases where victims’ needs have not been met.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge said it was wrong that insurers and lawyers had determined how much victims were paid out. His archdiocese had $52 million from which he was prepared to draw for victim payouts.

‘‘In the end, I [as archbishop] decide whether a sum conforms to the criteria of justice and compassion’’.

In the strongest statements yet by a senior Australian Catholic Church official about the church’s mishandling of sex abuse claims, Archbishop Coleridge said a “tsunami” of child sexual abuse allegations had caught bishops and other officials “like rabbits in a headlight”.

The failures of the Towards Healing protocol, in use since 1997, meant other ways of dealing with victim complaints needed to be explored “if we are serious about coming to the aid of victims”, the archbishop told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Bishops and church officials “didn’t know how to respond” to child sex abuse allegations, he said. So when lawyers and insurers came forward with seeming solutions, “They breathed a sigh of relief and said ‘Yes, that is right’”.

The Royal Commission has been examining the case of Mrs Joan Isaacs who was sexually abused from age 14 by the chaplain of her Brisbane convent school in the late 1960s.

Her treatment when she approached the church for an apology, counselling and compensation in 1999 was dictated by lawyers and insurers and was akin to reabuse, the Commission has heard. She received a reparations payment of $30,000.

Archbishop Coleridge said the handling of her case was “totally unacceptable”.

He said powerful cultural factors had converged to create a “perfect storm” around child sex abuse in the church. One factor was the “absurd” lack of training in the past for would-be priests about human and sexual relationships: “We have reaped the harvest of horror of that”.

The Brisbane archdiocese has had 99 cases of child sex abuse and nine current matters, with $2.5 million in payments made to victims. The Archbishop said he was surprised the payout figure was not greater.

He said he hoped for an independent national scheme of fund to which all elements of the church would contribute, and “those dioceses that are better resourced or wealthier would help the poorer dioceses or religious orders” to contribute as necessary.

Ms Jennifer Ingham, 50, told the commission how she was been abused for four years from age 15 by Father Paul Brown, now dead, of the Catholic Church’s Lismore diocese.

During those years she attempted suicide several times.

But when she later disclosed her abuse to three different church officials, nothing was done. In 2006 she told a priest in her local area, who told her to "stop blaming the church and go away".

She was “dumbfounded” when the head of the church’s Queensland Professional Standards office, Mary Bernadette Rogers, told her earlier this year that her case was being treated as “an insurance matter”.

Ms Ingham received a payout of $250,000, which she was told was the highest ever payment made by Catholic Church Insurances. But she said the disparity between her payout and much lower sums paid to others was “beyond unfair”.

The hearing continues.

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