The child abuse Royal Commission has heard that the Anglican Church took a harsh and antagonistic approach to victims of abuse from the New South Wales North Coast Children’s Home.
The inquiry’s been told that the Grafton Diocese which ran the home took a legal hard line against compensation claims by the former residents of the orphanage.
The lawyer representing the group said the Grafton Diocese had “gone rogue” and the Church’s key negotiator had “an attitude of machismo on par with Clint Eastwood.”
The lawyer representing the large group of 41 former residents of the North Coast Children’s Home said he believed the Grafton Diocese was going rogue when the victims tried to seek compensation from the Church.
The lawyer also gave a detailed description of the settlement negotiations.
Emily Bourke has been monitoring the hearings and she joins us now.
So Emily how explosive was this evidence this morning?
EMILY BOURKE: Well it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Anglican Diocese of Grafton was most resistant to paying compensation when large numbers of victims started coming forward in 2006.
The bottom line was that the Church was denying it had a duty of care, and it was citing various legal limitations, and it applied multiple legal obstacles to stop the claims proceeding.
In the face of this group claim of 41, the Grafton Diocese was trying to limit its liability in as many different ways as possible.
But the lawyer representing the group, Simon Harrison, said he felt the Grafton Diocese was going rogue and that the approach of the diocese and its legal team, the approach it was taking amounted to an adventure – an obvious departure from standard Church protocols and principles.
He was so concerned that he wrote to the Primate of Australia, Archbishop Philip Aspinall – he wanted to try to get things moving and for things to be resolved.
He didn’t think that Grafton should be ring fenced from the rest of the church, quarantined as it were from any sort of legal procedure.
But Dr Aspinall said he couldn’t intervene and it was in fact a matter for the Grafton Diocese. The backdrop to this was that his clients, Simon Harrison’s clients, were becoming increasingly distressed at the lack of progress with their cases.
Keep in mind that victims had taken decades to come forward and they were now facing firm resistance and even intransigence by the Church and its legal team.
Simon Harrison described the desperation of his clients.
SIMON HARRISON: I was on my way home one evening in the car, I got a call on my mobile phone. The person at the other end of the phone had told me that they’d covered themselves in petrol and was standing in their hall with a lighter ready to set fire to themselves.
I pulled the car over and was then trying to get on, keep them talking on the mobile phone while also trying to get some help on the landline. And as that transpired their partner came in and I could hear the floor in the background and thankfully that attempt at suicide was stopped. Certainly that was the extreme of what we were getting. But we were getting a number of calls from people who were quite clearly on the edge of self harm.
ELEANOR HALL: And that’s the lawyer for those residents, former residents of the children’s home, Simon Harrison.
So Emily, what happened when the lawyers got the diocese to the negotiating table?
EMILY BOURKE: Well, negotiations didn’t get off to a good start. Simon Harrison negotiated with the Grafton Diocese through a mediation conference model. Offers were made and then retracted. Various compensation packages had conditions attached, for example one package included counselling, but only if victims signed a deed of release.
It was pretty clear that formal court litigation would be very difficult to pursue because of various legal limitations imposed by the Church. And today we got an insight into the tone, the content and the spirit of those negotiations. The then registrar of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton, Reverend Pat Comben, was part of those negotiations. Simon Harrison explained how that mediation unfolded.
SIMON HARRISON: The Reverend Comben, as I recall when I walked into the room, was sitting on a chair with his hands behind his head and with his feet up, which I interpreted it as being something of a machismo role that he was trying to play out.
I put my hand across the table and shook hands with him, although the orphanage boy and the Celt in me felt like kicking the chair from underneath him quite frankly. He was showing a level of disrespect that I’ve not come across in negotiations previously.
But the Reverend Comben came back at one point and said look, the maximum we can go for each of these individuals was $10,000 and that if we were not going to settle then Clint Eastwood-style he said bring it on. Which again I felt was completely inappropriate.
ELEANOR HALL: And that’s the lawyer again, Simon Harrison.
So Emily, what was the final settlement?
EMILY BOURKE: Eventually the settlement was for $825,000 between 41 people. Not all of them agreed to sign on to that compensation package. A couple didn’t. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. A small number of other claims surfaced in 2008. Simon Harrison said that the nature of these claims and the allegations of abuse contained in them were potentially worse than that group claim. But that by this time the Church wasn’t entertaining further compensation claims at all.
He said the Church was putting up the walls. The position was the Church had paid out, end of story.
ELEANOR HALL: Emily Bourke, our reporter covering the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, thank you.