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Cardinal George Pell has told Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that the Church should be open to litigation over abuse, challenging the so-called "Ellis defence" that the Church was not a legal entity and could not be sued.
In an extract from the outgoing Archbishop of Sydney's witness statement read by Counsel Assisting the Commission, Gail Furness SC, on 10 March – the opening day of the Commission's latest public hearing, into the Church's Towards Healing procedure and the case of sex abuse victim John Ellis – Cardinal Pell said: "Whatever position was taken by the lawyers during the litigation, or by lawyers or individuals within the Archdiocese following the litigation, my own view is that the Church in Australia should be able to be sued in cases of this kind."
The cardinal, who has been appointed Prefect of the Vatican's new Secretariat for the Economy, is expected to appear before the Commission in Sydney early next week before his move to Rome later this month.
Mr Ellis was abused in the 1970s when he was aged between 13 and 17 by Fr Aidan Duggan, a Sydney priest who had come from Fort Augustus Abbey school in Scotland. When mediation failed under Towards Healing, Mr Ellis in 2004 sued Fr Duggan, Cardinal Pell in his capacity as Archbishop of Sydney and the body corporate, the Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Archdiocese of Sydney. Fr Duggan died later in 2004.
But the action failed, with the Court of Appeal finding that neither Cardinal Pell nor the body corporate could be liable for Fr Duggan's criminal conduct because the Church was not a legal entity and because Cardinal Pell was not Archbishop of Sydney at the time of the abuse – the so-called "Ellis Defence".
Critics have said this has created a shield to protect the Church from legal action, but Catholic officials have argued that it was simply a legal defence that you could not be liable for the wrongdoing of others unless you were directly or indirectly responsible for supervising their conduct.