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Catholic Church signs up to National Redress Scheme

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.

The Catholic Church has confirmed its commitment to join the National Redress Scheme to compensate victims of child sexual abuse by officially signing up to the scheme.

In a joint letter to Social Services Minister Dan Tehan, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Sister Ruth Durick OSU, President of Catholic Religious Australia, confirmed dioceses and religious orders will join the scheme as soon as it becomes possible under national legislation.  The letter also confirmed that the Church will establish a new agency to “allow dioceses and religious congregations to interact with the Scheme Operator”.

Twenty four hours after the Church’s announcement the Anglican Church, Salvation Army, YMCA and the Scouts also announced they would join the Commonwealth scheme, which will pay survivors of abuse up to $150,000.

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said he was pleased with the announcement.

“We know that an independent, national redress scheme is not only one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission, it is also an initiative supported by survivors of sexual abuse, their families and advocates,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“The Archdiocese of Sydney along with other dioceses and religious orders and the Truth, Justice and Healing Council have long supported an independent, national scheme, but could not formally join until commitments had been received from the federal and state governments.”

As early as 2013, the Catholic Church called for a national redress scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse and has not wavered from that commitment.  More than three years ago, Archbishop Fisher told the ABC:

“We’re calling on the government to give people a third option of having an independent redress process.  I think that in the end this is what people are really looking for.  They don’t want to go through the gruelling process of court, and they don’t trust the Church to investigate it.  So I think the best way is to have an independent redress scheme and that’s what we’ve joined the victim’s groups in calling on the government to institute.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Sr Ruth Durick OSU. PHOTO: ACBC

“…  What we need is a national approach to this that ensures that every victim gets the redress they deserve, that they get the independent investigation that they want, and that whatever the entity – whether it’s the Catholic Church or anyone else – that we don’t evade our responsibilities, that we accept what damage has been done and that we pay up when paying up has to be done.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this afternoon welcomed the Catholic Church’s involvement and described it as a “significant development”.

“The Catholic Church will be the first non-government institution to opt in to the National Redress Scheme,” Mr Turnbull said.

“If all states and institutions across Australia opt in, the scheme could provide redress to around 60,000 people.”

Mr Tehan commended the Church for its leadership in committing to the scheme, saying that the way in which the Church intends to join the scheme – via a single, national entity – would make it easier for survivors of abuse to access redress.

But the scheme is not without critics including Melbourne lawyer Dr Vivian Waller, a specialist in institutional abuse, who expressed disappointment at the decision to cap compensation at $150,000 instead of the $200,000 recommended by the Royal Commission.

“We support the concept of the redress scheme and it will be terrific for some people but it should be seen as the avenue of last resort,” she told The Catholic Weekly.

“We’re concerned about some aspects of its operation, and we’re most concerned about the absence of legal advice for people, on the threshold question of whether they should even participate in the scheme.

“People might be signing away their rights for common law claims worth multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars and we’re keen to make sure that people seek independent legal advice before participating in the scheme.”

Archbishop Fisher expressed his hope that the announcement would be a positive step forward. “My hope is that today’s announcement will be a source of relief and reassurance for survivors of abuse, who have been waiting for the Church’s formal response on redress, and that we can move forward in the implementation of the scheme so that they can continue to receive the assistance they need,” he said.

The National Redress Scheme is a program set up by the Federal Government in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It provides a means for victims of child sexual abuse to apply for compensation in the form of counselling, direct personal responses to their case – such as apologies – and monetary payments.

Western Australia is the only state yet to commit to the scheme, but Mr Tehan told media today that outstanding issues had been resolved.  Legislation enabling the scheme has passed the House of Representatives, and awaits approval by the Senate.

The Scheme will begin on 1 July 2018.

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