A challenge that we regularly face in historic child sex abuse cases is identifying the right defendant. Decades may have passed since the abuse, and the institutions that employed the abuser may have changed their name, or merged, or closed, or altered their legal form altogether.
A good example comes from our current work on behalf of four survivors who were abused during the 1950’s and 1960’s while pupils at St Bede’s College, Manchester, a leading Catholic school in the Manchester area. At the time of the abuse, St Bede’s was run and managed by the Diocese of Salford. But the Diocese have denied liability and refused to appoint a nominal defendant to stand for our clients to sue. They say that the Diocese is not, strictly speaking, a legal entity, and that our clients’ only option for bringing a claim for the abuse they suffered is to sue the governors of the school who were in post when the abuse happened. But those individuals are now dead or presumed dead and their successors have no legal liability. This stance is regrettable and goes against the Diocese’s public pledge to the contrary, when they said in January 2014 that: “All victims of abuse, however historic, are entitled, in law and in justice, to apologies and compensation, where possible, following a judicial finding in their favour”. Clearly, these attitudes are not filtering down to the Diocese’s legal advisers.
With this in mind, we were encouraged to read that an Anglican diocese in Victoria, Australia, has voted to incorporate, so that child abuse survivors will know exactly what entity to sue if they choose to pursue a case against the Anglican Church for abuse committed by its former priests or employees. Wangaratta is the third Anglican diocese in Victoria to make the decision to incorporate. Ballarat and Bendigo have already done so, and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne will vote on whether to do so shortly. These churches are taking a simple but profound step. They are freeing children who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Anglican priests or employees from having to engage in a long legal battle just to establish that the Church legally exists and is required to take responsibility for their actions.
Pope Francis recently established a tribunal to investigate bishops accused of failing to protect children and vulnerable adults from sex abuse, his most forceful act to date to tackle the church’s legacy of abuse and cover-ups. This is a positive move. We hope that he will also direct the Catholic Church and its lawyers to stop avoiding responsibility in cases of terrible abuse by resorting to loopholes. The Anglican model in Australia sets a good example for how the Catholic Church should behave, in England and around the world.