• Helen Davidson; 10/12/13
The former chancellor of the Brisbane archdiocese says it is “difficult” for the church to take the blame for a priest who “fell short of the standards expected of him” when he sexually abused a 15-year-old girl. The church sought to avoid condemning the convicted man on advice from lawyers and insurers, in case it was left open to liability claims, the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse heard on Tuesday.
On the second day of the public hearing into the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing program, it was also revealed that a development fund of $154m could have been used to pay victims of child abuse within the Brisbane archdiocese. Brisbane priest Frank Derriman was convicted in 1998 of the sexual abuse of Joan Isaacs when she was 15 and 16. Isaacs sought redress through the Towards Healing process, which was set up in 1996 in response to claims of sexual assault by clergy.
The royal commission’s final public hearing for 2013 is examining the response of Towards Healing to four victims of abuse, including Isaacs. A former chancellor of the archdiocese of Brisbane, James Spence, told the commission he acted as a conduit between the insurance company, the archbishop and the lawyers, with no decision-making capabilities in the case.
The commissioner, Justice Peter McClellan, asked Spence if he agreed that the church “creates, encourages and facilitates on an ongoing basis” opportunities for young people to engage with the church and its clergy, and as such the institution had a responsibility for the abuse that occurred. Spence said that an “understanding of human nature and its frailty needed to be taken into consideration” and that Derriman “fell short of the standards that were expected of him”.
Spence found it difficult “to say that it makes the church responsible for the actions that he did, and which the church forbade him to do. In training a man for priesthood there are certain standards,” he said. “There may be ways of training priests now that we didn’t have at the time that would expose these frailties.” In a letter to church solicitors, Spence wrote that a letter from the Bishop of Brisbane, John Gerry, to Isaacs was “not carefully worded” because it was drafted under the mistaken belief that Derriman had pleaded guilty. This allowed the church to argue the letter was not an admission of liability.
“It does affirm Derryman’s [sic] guilt, of which I don’t believe there was evidence to warrant such an apology or admission,” he wrote. Spence told the hearing it was “bad drafting. I certainly didn’t mean there wasn’t evidence of his guilt. I think I would have been talking there about responsibility [of the church] for his action.”
In a 1999 letter to the manager of special projects at Catholic Church Insurances, Laurie Rolls, Spence said he was “reluctant to so formally admit the fact of the abuse” by publicly condemning Derriman. He also said he had “trouble seeing a nexus” between the abuse Isaacs suffered and difficulties she faced later.
“I have suggested to John Moore that we need to know what and when were any disturbances and how soon after the abuse occurred did they appear,” he wrote. He suggested avoiding getting “into the area of an apology once again” and instead that the church offer to pay Isaacs’s counselling bills rather than a lump sum, as a lump sum “might be used to pay legal fees”.
Spence told the commission he now thought the $30,000 offered to Isaacs was “mean”, and the church should go outside the settlement offer put on the table by insurers if it fell short of what the victim deserved. He said he was unaware at the time of any church fund from which the money could come, but suggested the archdiocesan development fund was a financial source which would have been available in 2001. He estimated that at the time it contained assets of about $154m which were generating an income.
Spence was a member of the finance council “for six or seven years” until his retirement in 2008, but said he could not remember the name of any fund beyond the development fund. Spence said he accepted the advice of lawyers and insurers on both drafts of the deed of release for Isaacs, the second of which included a confidentiality clause restricting her from talking about the case even to her husband and children. By the time that deed was written the Towards Healing documents had been revised to expressly rule out such clauses.
He told the hearing the clause was “quite inappropriate” but that his experience of working with insurers made him think the clause was “part of the procedure” at the time of the drafts. Spence said he thought the clause was inserted by the lawyers “to protect the church from further damage”. Spence said it was “wrong to make a binding condition” of the clause preventing the victim from making “disparaging remarks”. However, he suggested it would be appropriate to instead make a “recommendation” to the victim not to speak, referring to “exaggeration” in the press.
Before Spence’s testimony Adrian Farrelly, who represented the church during facilitation meetings with Isaacs when the Bishop of Brisbane could not attend due to illness, told the royal commission there had been “some failure of the application of compassion and justice” in the treatment of Isaacs. Farrelly told the commission he told Isaacs at the meeting “that I was sorry she had suffered that and that she shouldn’t have suffered it, that she wasn’t responsible”.
Under questioning from McClellan and Gail Furness, senior counsel assisting the commission, Farrelly conceded that he knew going into the meeting with Isaacs that he could not offer compensation or an apology beyond an expression of sorrow, under instruction from the church’s insurance company. Farrelly reported to the church authority after the meeting: “I did not offer an apology on behalf of the church but did express my sorrow at what had happened to her, and that the church as a whole had not in those days listened well enough to the accounts of what people like Joan had suffered.”
Farrelly said he was aware Isaacs wanted “the chance to tell her story to the church” as well an apology, counselling and compensation. Asked whether victims including Isaacs deserved an apology from the church, even if it opened the institution up to liability, Farrelly replied: “Yes.”