Helen Davidson; 11/12/13
Senior members of the Catholic clergy were “like rabbits caught in a headlight” when Towards Healing was rolled out in 1996, and as a result placed too much trust in lawyers and insurers, the archbishop of Brisbane told the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse on Wednesday.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who has been in the position since May 2012, told the public hearing that “the buck stops with the archbishop”, and particularly in the case of sexual abuse victim Joan Isaacs, there was a “lack of oversight” on the part of the church’s Brisbane hierarchy which led to insurers and lawyers playing a “damaging” role in the dealings of Towards Healing with a victim of child sexual abuse.
Coleridge said while Towards Healing was “in one sense” done very carefully, it was also a process conducted “on the run, and by people who were learning as they went.”
When Towards Healing was first established to respond to accusations of abuse by clergy, senior church members including bishops “didn’t know how to respond,” Coleridge said. “And that’s why, when a seemingly trusted and competent professional like a lawyer or an insurer came forward saying ‘this is the way forward’, bishops and major superiors were inclined to breathe a sigh of relief and say ‘yes, you are right’.”
He said the case of Isaacs – who was sexually abused by priest Frank Derriman in the 1960s when she was 15 and 16 – was a good illustration. Isaacs told the commission on Monday that she faced “stone-walling”, misinformation and legal threats and gag orders during her process with Towards Healing.
Isaacs was offered ten counselling sessions by Towards Healing, with a review for further sessions. There was no offer to pay for the decades of treatment she had received or for it to continue. Isaacs was also forced to chase up Towards Healing twice whenher psychologist had not been paid. “Where it went wrong was in the later phases to do with counselling,” Coleridge said.
“The counselling episode in the case of Mrs Isaacs seems to me to be a case of spectacular bungling on the part of the archdiocese of Brisbane where everyone assumed to presume that someone else was doing it.” After protracted negotiations Isaacs was offered and accepted a $30,000 lump sum, despite her legal team aiming for more than ten times that amount. More than $20,000 went on legal fees and after paying those as well as health costs, Isaacs had enough to buy $5000 in shares and a sewing machine.
While an asset management fund within Catholic Church Insurances was “the only specific fund of the archdiocese that is available to cover matters of sexual abuse”, an archbishop – including his predecessor Bishop John Bathersby – could authorise the use of money from other sources, including cash reserves of about $30m in Brisbane alone.
While the Brisbane archdiocese was “not among the fat cats of the world”, they had a surplus fund of $22m last year, Coleridge said. He also revealed that the archdiocese has paid about $760,000 to abuse victims on top of the $1.7m paid by CCI. It was revealed on Tuesday that a development fund contained about $154m at the time of Isaacs’ settlement.
Also revealed during Coleridge’s testimony – the last for the examination of Isaacs’ case – was that the priest who abused her remained technically a priest until Coleridge learnt of the case and took it upon himself to begin dismissal proceedings. Derriman was married in 1970, abandoning his orders, which meant he was “automatically excommunicated” but this did not affect his clerical appointment.
“He [was] technically and canonically [a priest] within orders, and I don’t think that’s acceptable,” Coleridge told the commission. “It is a belated gesture but I was in conscience bound to do it,” he said, adding that this was the same reason he wrote to Isaacs earlier this year freeing her of confidentiality orders. It was “an absolutely fair comment” when Isaacs called his letter “too little too late”, but he was “appalled”.
He said there was truth in her comparison of the confidentiality