Civil Liability Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2021

5th May 2021

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (11:14): I speak strongly in support of the Civil Liability Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2021. I am pleased that the bill is before the House. Similar legislation has already been passed in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, thereby affording the victims of institutional abuse in those States fairer access to redress than they may have had in the past. The bill builds on the reforms made by the Government in 2016 and 2018 and introduces the further recommendations of the royal commission. As members know, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was largely the result of a concerted campaign in the Hunter region which shone a very intense spotlight on the historic abuse and cover-ups within churches and other institutions mainly in the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Maitland areas.

As I have done before in this House, I acknowledge the tremendous work done on behalf of victims byNewcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy, along with abuse survivor and redress advocate Peter Gogarty and many others, including former police Minister and Deputy Premier Troy Grant. I have taken a personal interest in this issue for many years due to my having attended secondary school at St Pius X High School, Adamstown and my brother Colin having attended Marist Brothers at Hamilton. During those years both schools featured as a significant part of the problem of institutional sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the Hunter region, with the Hunter now having a notorious reputation, particularly in relation to the failings of the Catholic Church in this regard. While at the time I was unaware of the sexual abuse of students that was occurring, I was very aware of the cruel nature of too many of the teaching cohort and indeed an almost lustful use of corporal punishment.

Based on that knowledge, perhaps I should not be surprised that even worse happened, cloaked in darkness, protected by the Church and by the teachings of the Church. I know some of those victims of sexual abuse, and that has impacted me greatly, but I did not know they were victims at the time. I remain disgusted, angry and unforgiving that others in positions of power within the school and similar institutions did know, yet they failed to act to protect those vulnerable people. Here we are, still standing with those victims of sickening abuse and trying to bring those perpetrators and institutions to justice. History now records the extent of that abuse within a number of churches and institutions. They were places where many people placed enormous faith and trust. They were places where people should have been safe and protected, but too many were not. In many cases, those victims were made to feel like criminals, when the real criminals were simply moved around, relocated and hidden to protect their names and the name of the church or institution.

Some of those victims sought redress through the church or institution itself, but they were David and Goliath battles in which the victims were totally overpowered by the legal might of the organisations in question. That brings me to what I believe is the most important element of this bill. The bill will allow survivors who entered into settlements before the 2016 and 2018 reforms to have agreements set aside so that they can be afforded the same access to justice that was provided to those who brought claims after the reforms were introduced. That was a key recommendation of the royal commission'sRedress and Civil Litigation Report. As I indicated earlier, the royal commission found that in many settlement claims there had been a significant power imbalance between the abuse victims and survivors and the defendant. As the Attorney General has already pointed out, many settlement agreements entered into prior to 2015 and prior to the State reforms in 2016 and 2018 might now be considered unfair or unjust.

Legal barriers have since been removed and this bill, I believe, will remove the last barrier to survivors getting appropriate and proper redress, such as can be done. The bill will give courts the power to set aside historical settlement agreements and remove legal impediments which have traditionally swung the balance well away from abuse victims. This will include agreements undertaken between an individual and an institution as well as agreements made under an institution's own private redress scheme.

I have one particular constituent who has waited a long time for this type of redress. I do not intend to name him or detail his case as it will be heard by the courts should this bill be passed. What I can say is that this individual was among many who suffered abuse at the hands of an individual within the Marist Brothers. This person is a wonderful member of my local community; a man who is compassionate and who, despite his health problems, does an enormous amount for others in the community. He was abused in a place where he should have been safe and protected. The Marist Brothers did more to protect the perpetrator than this victim.

In 2011 this man settled a claim for compensation with the Marist Brothers, but it was pitiful in dollar terms and did nothing to soften the lifelong scars of his abuse. The deed of release in this case included an agreement which prevented him from bringing any further claims against the Marist Brothers. This was the church's legal Goliath against an almost powerless and heavily compromised victim who was almost forced to accept a pitiful claim because the legal defences available to him were so poor. There was also, of course, a three-year statutory time limit on redress for crimes which had been committed decades beforehand, which has since been removed. There is no doubt in my mind that this survivor of the church's abuse and cover-ups was dudded by a legal playing field which in 2011 was significantly sloped against him. In fact I have seen letters from his current legal advisers which state:

If you had brought the case today, the settlement amount would be worth a far greater amount.

Many victims have found themselves in this situation and they deserve our support in getting a fairer outcome which in some way might redress the trauma they have endured. Beyond that, I also note that this bill does not determine a set amount of compensation or redress any more than my opinion does. What it does is allow these victims to have their historical agreements set aside so that a court can again hear their case and determine an appropriate agreement that is free from the hurdles, shackles and power which restricted them the first time around. The Attorney General, in reference to the royal commission'sRedress and Civil Litigation Report, said:

Many settlement agreements entered into by survivors might now be considered unjust or unfair … If … legal barriers had not existed at the time of the settlement, those survivors would have been in a better negotiating position and may have negotiated a higher settlement amount.

As the Attorney General has already pointed out, that form of redress only applies to cases determined prior to the royal commission and not those settled under the National Redress Scheme. Significantly, this bill will allow the courts to better define abuse perpetrated against a person and, if certain abuse thresholds have been met, other forms of abuse such as psychological abuse and minor physical abuse can be considered by the court in determining the claim.

It is important that we acknowledge the need for these reforms and allow all survivors of institutional abuse to exist in a society that stands by them and offers a legal framework that is fair and just. I applaud the resilience, the courage, the bravery and the patience shown by many survivors of institutional abuse. I know that for them the trauma never really goes away and the healing process in most cases is a never-ending one. I am very confident that this bill will be an important legal reform which will assist many survivors. I strongly support this bill and I thank the Attorney General and his staff for continuing to work through this issue and bring these important reforms to us. I commend the bill to the House.

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