Herrick abuse case opens in Sydney
A while back, the Freethinker played a part in helping Jennifer Herrick launch a claim for damages against the Catholic Church in Australia. Today a hearing began in the Supreme Court in Sydney.
According to an ABC News report today, the disabled woman has begun a legal case against her former parish priest, who she says sexually abused her over a 14 year period.
Herrick is seeking aggravated and punitive damages from Father Tom Knowles and three senior members of his order, the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. Herrick says Father Knowles repeatedly exploited her vulnerability as a disabled and sexually naive parishioner.
Two months ago, Jennifer Herrick spoke to the PM programme about how the Church was using the controversial Ellis defence to fight her claim.
The “Ellis Defence” came into being in 2007 when former altar boy John Ellis tried to sue an abusive priest, the Church and the then Archbishop, Cardinal Pell.
Ellis sought damages for abuse he suffered at the hands of Father Aiden Duggan in Sydney in the 1970s.
Herrick’s lawyers are arguing that Father Knowles breached his duty of care to Herrick by instigating and maintaining a secret sexual relationship with her.
The legal argument today centred on a report done in 2011 by a social worker. The head of the the Blessed Sacrament Fathers order, Father Graeme Duro, told the court that he’d asked Dr Sharon McCallum to do a risk assessment on whether Father Knowles was likely to breach his vow of celibacy again.
The Church says that the report, based on an interview with Father Knowles, should not be made public.
Herrick reacted by saying:
The fact that they’re refusing to divulge what was written in this report, the fact that they’re so determined to hide what they have learnt about him, that tells me that these sorts of perpetrators need to be cleared from the Church and the only way the rest of us can do that is to know what has been revealed.
Judge Joanne Harrison has reserved her decision on whether the church should release the report. She’s given Father Knowles two weeks to lodge his defence.
A Church barrister has also described her claims as excessive. Said Herrick:
I was really affronted by that term. It was insulting and I thought frivolous on his part to something that’s extremely serious.
Herrick explained in the radio interview that he basis of her claim is to try and help society understand:
That the issue here is not just about me personally, but it’s about the position of women in the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse, exploitation, use, assault – the whole range is just not recognised if you’re over 18. There’s still this magic number of 18, and that has to change.
So I’m trying to expose that, lead the way, hope that other women will come forward. We know there’s hundreds out there.
They’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to this point, they certainly haven’t come willingly, and I’m not going away, they need to realise that. And they need to understand that I’m here for the long haul, as I said, for all the women out there.
This is not just about me as a person, it’s about 51 per cent of the Catholic Church who are not recognised adequately, and have been used and exploited in ways that, I can’t say it better than it just has to change.
A few weeks ago Herrick drew my attention to that fact that the “Ellis Defence” had been invoked in relation to her claim – despite the fact that the now Cardinal George Pell had told the recent child abuse Royal Commission that victims should be able to sue the Church.
She told me:
Australia is the only country where sexual victims cannot sue the trustees of any entity of the Catholic Church.
Greens MP David Shoebridge wants this foul law scrapped, and has introduced a bill in the New South Wales Parliament which seeks to overrule it. He said it allows Church officials to:
Sit down opposite the victim and they say ‘sorry about what happened to you but have you heard of the Ellis defence. You can’t win this case and we’re willing to offer you a discount’
What we have got from Cardinal Pell was a series of statements that if you took on face value should say the Church should never again run the Ellis Defence.
What Cardinal Pell says to the Royal Commission is very contrary to what he has done as a manager of Church finances. The fact is the law hasn’t changed. These statements have been made, but all the power continues to reside with the Church.
Victims’ group Broken Rites says Father Knowles’ behaviour should be viewed in the same light as doctors who had sexual relationships with patients.
In a statement Father Graeme Duro from the Blessed Sacrament Fathers said Herrick’s case is “nothing like” the Ellis case because he sued parties who were found by the court to have had no role in appointing or supervising the priest.
I wish to add that the Congregation has sought at all times to deal fairly and openly with Ms Herrick. She initially raised her complaint through Towards Healing and a settlement was reached. We deeply regret that having reached a settlement with us, she is now seeking to overturn that settlement. We hope that these matters will reach a rapid resolution through the courts.
As the matter is before the courts we are constrained in what we can say but the essential point is that Ms Herrick has named a number of parties to her proceeding.
One of them had no role in appointing priests but a number of others did, and those that did admit that they did. It is a matter for the courts to determine whether any of the defendants have any liability to Ms Herrick.