High price of broken trustElena Curti
- 9 July 2005
After last week?s record award by the High Court of ?650,000 to a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, many fear that the compensation claim floodgates will open in the UK as wide as they have in the United States
Somewhere in Northern Ireland lives a man whose mental state is so fragile that he cannot earn a living or care for himself. The man, known only as Mr A, lives in sheltered accommodation and suffers from schizophrenia. Last week the High Court in Manchester concluded that his condition was attributable to the sexual abuse he suffered from the age of seven as victim of a priest. The compensation he was given came to more than ?600,000 ? a record award against the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom.
Last week?s case was the first time such a claim against the Church was settled in the High Court, and the judgement is likely to have implications for the kind of awards payable in similar cases in future. In particular, it appears to be following a pattern established in the United States where the number of claimants and the sums awarded to them have climbed steadily. So far, three states haven?t been able to meet the sums required and have declared themselves bankrupt.
Meanwhile in Canada, St George?s Diocese in Newfoundland is selling property, appealing for donations and may have to close parishes to compensate 39 victims of a paedophile priest. The claimants were sexually assaulted by Fr Kevin Bennett. Bennett, a diocesan priest, was convicted of sexually assaulting dozens of boys, and last year the Supreme Court of Canada found St George?s both directly and vicariously liable for his actions.
Victims were originally seeking a total of ?23m in compensation and last May the diocese filed a notice of intent to declare bankruptcy. However, victims subsequently agreed to accept lower offers of compensation ranging from ?34,000 to ?460,000.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court approved a settlement totalling ?6m. St George?s says it will now sell 150 of its properties. It is also appealing for donations from other dioceses, religious communities and wealthy Catholics to enable it to continue its ministry and, at the same time, compensate the victims. St George?s bishop, Douglas Crosby, has acknowledged that some parishes and missions may have to close.
There has been speculation that dioceses in Britain could also find themselves in financial difficulties, but it appears that most are covered by insurance. Birmingham Diocese has been quick to point out that it will not have to pay a penny of Mr A?s compensation, nor the legal costs.
Mr A, now aged 34, was abused by Fr Christopher Clonan, an assistant priest at Christ the King Church in Coundon, Coventry, a man at the time respected and trusted by Mr A?s family. The nature of the abuse became steadily more serious and continued for some 10 years until 1988. Four years later, when Clonan became aware of allegations of abuse against him, the priest left the country. Police believe he died in Australia in 1998.
The press secretary to Birmingham Diocese, Peter Jennings, believes there are unique factors in Mr A?s case. He points out that the bulk of the compensation ? ?500,000 ? is for loss of earnings, and reflects what the judge decided the victim would have accumulated in wages had he not been rendered unable to work because of the abuse he suffered.
?The Archdiocese of Birmingham has indemnity insurance and this case has been progressed in full cooperation with the insurance company. No money given by parishes to central funds will be used for this settlement. Mr A?s case is a one-off. It won?t open the floodgates and claims that it will are exaggerated.?
Likewise Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham described the Clonan story as ?an appalling case?, the very worst that he knew of, but that it does not change the established procedures and rules under which compensation is calculated.
However, some lawyers believe that other abuse victims could in future successfully claim for loss of earnings attributable to post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness caused by child abuse. In that sense they point out that abuse is no different from other forms of personal injury. The other significant factor, they believe, is that ?50,000 of Mr A?s award was for the pain and suffering caused by the abuse.
?It is one of the highest figures I have seen awarded for pain and suffering,? said Peter Garsden, vice president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers (ACAL).
Mr Garsden believes that awards for pain and suffering will continue to rise as awareness of the lasting trauma caused by abuse is better understood. Through long experience of dealing with survivors, he says suffering is invariably severe.
?Clients will have nightmares. Often they will not be able to sleep. They are totally unable to have relationships with the opposite sex. Often they will have psychiatric and emotional problems.?
Such suffering, he believes, is intensified if the survivor is the victim of a priest. ?The complications are greater. There is the religious obligation and the paradox in these situations. The priest is meant to be educating children in the ways of goodness and he is doing the opposite. There was a great propensity to remain silent, with the priest often insisting the child would not be believed. The repression of the truth makes it more difficult to deal with.?
Mr Garsden has harsh words for some insurance companies involved in defending child abuse claims. He accuses them of doing all they can to wear victims down.
?In my experience, insurance companies will resist claims all the way to trial. They do all they can to wear the victim down. They will make a low offer and put him under tactical pressure to give up. They use the legal framework to be litigious.
?Generally speaking, if you are up against an insurance company, they will fight harder and not apologise.?
Mr A?s case went to the High Court after five years of deliberation. His solicitors claimed ?1.9 million ? and in his case, the Church, and not only the insurance company concerned, questioned the claim. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4?s Sunday programme, Archbishop Nichols said: ?It?s important to remember that the solicitors actually claimed almost ?2 million The fact that the court awarded ?650,000 suggests that the claim was exaggerated and, some might think, aggressive.?
The solicitor that acted for Birmingham diocese, Glenn Miller, partner at Beachcroft Wansboroughs, does not believe that compensation for child abuse will continue to rise at the rate it has done in the United States.
The main reason for his view is that in the US, juries determine the amount of compensation. In the United Kingdom, the awards are made by judges.
?English judges are not in the business of dealing in telephone numbers. They are not interested in awarding million upon million. In Mr A?s case, the figures were gone into in some detail. The loss of earnings was calculated down to the last penny.?
But the amounts awarded have risen steadily in the United Kingdom in recent years. Mr Miller attributes this to the precedent set in the Court of Appeal in 2003 concerning children who suffered abuse at the Bryn Alyn care homes in North Wales. Here awards of ?50,000 for ?pain and suffering? were made for the first time to victims.
?The Court of Appeal decided that as well as a sum of money to recompense the claimant for what he was then suffering, there should also be an award for the pain and suffering he suffered at the time the abuse was going on.?
The solicitor representing Mr A, John Housden of Clifton Ingram, has expressed the hope that the Church will now offer what he calls realistic compensation to all those who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests, so that victims and their families can be spared the trauma of giving evidence.
?The Church has said it will listen to and deal with all claims of sexual abuse, whenever that abuse may have occurred, and yet all too often we find the Church denying claims to compensation on the grounds that the abuse occurred too long ago to be considered,? he said.
Mr Housden does not expect Mr A?s case to lead to a flood of claims. He points out that claims can only succeed if it can be proved that the Church breached its duty of care to victims.
?You have to show that the Church had knowledge that one of its priests was abusing parishioners or altar boys and was turning a blind eye. In Mr A?s case we received cooperation from a number of witnesses. There are lots of cases where we don?t have that evidence.?
Nor does he believe that the awards for pain and suffering caused by abuse are likely to go much above ?75,000 ? the amount recently awarded to a quadriplegic in a personal injury case.
But there is another factor that could lead to more and bigger claims, the trend for personal injury lawyers to take cases on a ?No win, no fee? basis, as happened in Mr A?s case where the legal fees are expected to be around ?500,000.
Mr Housden defends the practice, pointing out that such a claim against the Church carries a very high risk for lawyers.
?There is a huge amount of expense, and if we don?t win it is money down the drain. We also feel strongly about these cases from a moral standpoint. We are making a stand.?
There are, according to Mr Jennings, at present another two alleged victims of Christopher Clonan seeking compensation from the diocese. Mr A?s solicitor is pursuing other abuse claims against the Catholic Church ? eight of them concerning priests from Birmingham Archdiocese. There are other solicitors? practices around the country also specialising in child abuse cases.
Last week, Copca, the office set up by the Church to address child protection issues, reported that in 2004 the number of allegations of abuse rose by 50 per cent. Copca believes that this reflects a growing confidence among people that the Church will take their complaints seriously. But if more people come forward, there might also be more who are prepared to sue.
Most of the claims relate to incidents alleged to have happened a very long time ago ? in one or two cases they go back 60 years. In such circumstances, the police often face a very difficult task in establishing the truth. Copca?s director, Eileen Shearer, has always maintained that false allegations are rare, and that in fact far too many victims ? she estimates as many as a third ? are still failing to report childhood abuse.
For both the victims of abuse and the Catholic Church, abuse from long ago still haunts the present. People like Mr A have had their lives ruined. And the Church, which has worked hard in recent years to ensure that children are safe in its care, now finds itself pursued financially and its reputation tainted.
Redress for child abuse: the Irish experience
Ireland?s bishops say they need to raise ?25 million over the next five years to meet a steep rise in the cost of clerical abuse claims to victims. In the past two years alone, pay-outs reached nearly 5 million Euros.
In March the bishops admitted for the first time that pay-outs had almost depleted a central fund known as the Stewardship Trust, set up in 1996. This has forced them to engage in a new consultative process in their dioceses on the future of the fund.
National figures show that ?10.8 million has been paid out from this central fund in compensation to 143 individuals abused by 36 priests ? some ?2.53 million of this being incurred in legal costs, and nearly ?2 million in child protection services, research reports and legal advice.
The bulk of diocesan payments occurred in the past two years: ?1.9 million for 2003 and ?2.9 million in 2004. In those two years ?6.3 million was contributed into the fund by the dioceses to augment its size.
The Stewardship Trust was opened with a single lump sum of ?4.3 million from the Church and General Insurance Company to cover claims, but in 1999, after further negotiations with the bishops, the company paid a full and final settlement of ?6.3 million.
Dublin, the largest diocese, has contributed ?2.5 million and expects to give a further ?5 million over the next four years. It has received ?3.7 million from the fund to cover claims. No money from church collections in Dublin has been used for claims, in contrast to the Diocese of Derry, where earlier this year Bishop Seamus Hegarty was forced to withdraw a three-per-cent levy on parishes.
A report from a Government appointed enquiry into the level of abuse in the Diocese of Ferns is expected soon. This enquiry was established after scandals forced Bishop Brendan Comiskey to resign in April 2002. Meanwhile, two Ferns priests were defrocked by Rome under canon law process. Later this year a similar enquiry will probe the scale of abuses in Dublin, with the retired Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, due to give evidence.
With regard to the religious orders, a deal concluded by the Government in 2002 with 18 congregations granted them state indemnity for overall claims in excess of ?128 million by victims in residential institutions under their control. This deal, which is overseen by a Redress Board, was criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General as likely to cost tax payers almost ?1 billion. In April the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, told the Dail, the lower house of Parliament, that the Redress Board has paid some ?229 million to more than 3,000 victims with an average award of ?78,000. More than 5,800 applications have been made to the board.
John Cooney, Dublin</>