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Australian High Court Rules Against Catholic Church in Legal Case Over Handling of Abusive Priests’ Deaths

The Australian High Court has ruled against the church’s practice of seeking permanent stays in historical abuse cases involving paedophile priests. 

The court has argued that such actions, based on factors like delay, death of perpetrators, and loss of records, impede the pursuit of justice for survivors and prevent fair trials.

The church has increasingly employed the strategy of seeking permanent stays to thwart active claims or offer survivors low settlements. This approach has had severe repercussions for the already vulnerable survivors. Advocacy groups contend that it goes against the intent of Australian parliaments, which eliminated time limits for civil claims to acknowledge the significant barriers faced by survivors in coming forward.

One survivor, identified as GLJ, faced a compensation case that was permanently stayed by the Lismore diocese. GLJ alleges she was abused by Father Clarence Anderson, who passed away before her complaint was filed. Anderson’s death in 1996, long before GLJ’s complaint, prompted the Lismore diocese to claim that they were unfairly placed in a position where they couldn’t properly investigate the allegation or mount a defense. The church argued that it was left “utterly in the dark” regarding the veracity of the abuse allegations.

GLJ’s legal representatives, however, assert that the church possessed evidence of Anderson’s abuse of other children dating back to 1971, the year of his defrocking. They contend that the church had ample opportunities to investigate his conduct more comprehensively during the 25 years preceding his death but failed to do so.

In a landmark ruling, the High Court sided with GLJ, stating that permanent stays should only be granted in “exceptional” cases. The decision, delivered by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and Justices Stephen Gageler and Jayne Jagot, underscored that any other use of stays would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

The Catholic Church’s use of permanent stays in historical abuse cases has drawn criticism from various quarters, particularly survivor groups who have long been advocating for justice and accountability. These groups argue that the church’s strategy has hindered survivors’ access to justice and has perpetuated the suffering of those who have already endured so much.

The High Court’s ruling sets a precedent that challenges the church’s attempts to evade legal responsibilities in cases where abusive priests have passed away. The court has affirmed the importance of ensuring that justice is served, even when the accused perpetrators are no longer alive. Survivors of abuse have faced numerous hurdles in coming forward with their experiences, and the elimination of time limits for civil claims was meant to address these barriers and provide survivors with a fair opportunity to seek redress.

The ruling sends a clear message that the Australian legal system stands with survivors and will not allow institutions to use legal loopholes to evade accountability. It highlights the need for thorough investigations, documentation, and transparency in cases of historical abuse, even when the accused have passed away.

This legal development has sparked discussions around the responsibilities of institutions like the Catholic Church in handling allegations of abuse within their ranks. The court’s decision emphasizes that the church cannot simply claim ignorance or lack of information as a defense when it had opportunities to investigate and address allegations of abuse in the past.

The decision reinforces the importance of transparency, accountability, and fair treatment of survivors, even in cases where the accused perpetrators are deceased.

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