Cardinal George Pell says he was surprised by the number of complaints made in the lead up to the introduction of the Melbourne Response to abuse within the Church, reports the ABC.
Cardinal Pell has appeared at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Melbourne via video-link from the Vatican. The inquiry has been examining the Church's Melbourne Response, which Cardinal Pell established when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.
Under the protocol, independent commissioners were appointed to investigate claims, a free counselling and support service known as Carelink was created, as well as a panel to provide ex-gratia compensation payments. Once victims went to police they were no longer eligible for compensation.
"We never anticipated the volume of responses that would go on for years," Cardinal Pell said. "I was aware there were dozens of complaints."
Cardinal Pell said he was aware of reports in newspapers that were "brought home to me very clearly. There was evidence something needed to be done to deal with this suffering," he said.
The Royal Commission has been considering a series of "systemic issues" including the independence of the compensation scheme, the criteria for determining compensation amounts and the independence of the process.
He also addressed what he called the "cure" offered by the Melbourne Response.
From the Truth Justice & Healing Council
Mr Richard Leder, Partner in the legal firm, Corrs Chambers Westgarth and advisor to the Archdiocese of Melbourne, continued giving evidence today about Mr and Mrs Foster’s experiences of the Melbourne Response and their subsequent litigation against the Melbourne Archdiocese.
Mr Leder was also questioned about confidentiality obligations imposed on victims going through the Melbourne response. Mr Leder said that the letters to the Fosters were not intended to restrict a victim's ability to disclose their abuse.
He said the wording of letters to victims was later changed to clarify that there were no restrictions on them discussing the abuse they had suffered.
Mr Leder said there were a number of factors which made Emma Foster’s claim complex and unique. He said it was unusual for someone as young as Emma to come forward so soon after the abuse and while still a child. He also said the effects on Emma of the abuse were profound and that Emma’s case was one of the earliest which the Independent Commissioner and Carelink had dealt with.
Mr Leder was asked about a number of other issues including mandatory reporting requirements and confidentiality.
While giving evidence about the abuse suffered by Emma and Katie Foster in the 1990s by Kevin O’Donnell, Mr Leder said that he had been wrong to write in a 1998 letter that the abuse suffered by Emma was relatively minor. He told the Commission that if he knew then what he knows now then he would not have held that view.
Mr Leder told the Commission that Catholic Church Insurance (CCI) had not initially welcomed the model of the Melbourne Response but that CCI did accept the new process.
Mr Leder again apologised to the Fosters for the language used in a legal letter to them, which said that if they proceeded with civil action rather than accept an offer from the Melbourne Response, then their claim would be ‘strenuously’ defended.
He said these words were part of the standard letter in 1996, but that once the Archdiocese realised they were of concern, the wording was changed. He said that he had apologised to the Fosters yesterday and that he “certainly apologises now.”
Cardinal George Pell, who appeared by video link from Rome, was also asked about the use of the word ‘strenuously’ in the letter of offer to the Fosters. The Cardinal said that it was an unfortunate phrase and the use of that language had stopped in 2002.
Cardinal Pell was asked by Council Assisting, Gail Furness, about the cap that was part of the Melbourne Response. The Cardinal said that he had not been comfortable with putting a cap on ex-gratia payments but that there needed to be standards for measuring comparable levels of suffering in the scheme.
Cardinal Pell said that he doesn’t agree that victims should have to sign a deed of release.
He said that the money was never his primary concern when establishing the Melbourne Response - rather that the imperative was to help victims of abuse.
When questioned about redress schemes by Commissioner McClellan, Cardinal Pell said that he had been dealing with sexual abuse in the Church for more than 18 years, and that over that time, his understanding of the suffering and long-term impact of abuse had deepened.
Cardinal Pell was also asked about the suitability of appointing Professor Bell, who had previously had a role counseling offending priests, as the inaugural head of the Melbourne Response’s pastoral and counselling arm Carelink. He said that while there had not been overwhelming support for Professor Bell, particularly from some victims and their advocates to take up the position the decision, the Archdiocese had considered him to be the best person for the job.
Cardinal Pell also gave evidence to the Commission about its request to the Holy See for documents it held relating to all claims of abuse in Australia, saying that, overwhelmingly, all documents held in Rome were already here in Australia.
He said that when he had previously given the assurance that the Vatican would provide all documents to the Royal Commission he had not considered this to include internal Vatican working documents. Cardinal Pell said that this position was consistent with international protocols between sovereign states. Cardinal Pell said he was strongly supportive of the Royal Commission’s request for specific documents to be provided by the Vatican.
The hearing continues.
Media release in full: Update 54 - Royal Commission - The Melbourne Response
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