General

The National Redress Scheme at work

The National Redress Scheme is designed to provide redress pathways for victims while holding institutions accountable for child sexual abuse. The abuse may have occurred in places such as orphanages, children’s homes, schools, churches, sports clubs, hospitals and foster care. 

Cardinal George Pell’s recent conviction in Melbourne’s County Court highlights the ongoing and widespread issue of institutional child sexual abuse. In February 2019, Pell was remanded in custody after having been found guilty of five charges of child sex abuse.

The County Court heard the crimes were committed against two choirboys in 1996, while Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne.

Pell’s legal team immediately applied for leave to appeal against the convictions and the Vatican’s once third highest-ranking official maintains his innocence.

The Vatican issued a statement expressing its ‘utmost respect for the Australian judicial authorities’ and saying it would await the outcome of Pell’s appeals process.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Melbourne, President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, echoed this sentiment and added: “Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served. In the meantime, we pray for all those who have been abused and their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable.”

Joining the National Redress Scheme

The Catholic Church is one of a number of institutions committed to joining the National Redress Scheme. All state and territory governments, the Commonwealth, the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church, the Salvation Army, the YMCA and Scouts Australia have also signalled their commitment.

The National Redress Scheme is the Australian Government’s response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. The Scheme began on 1stJuly 2018 and will run for 10 years.

Those who experienced sexual abuse when they were under 18 years of age, and where an institution was responsible for bringing them into contact with the person who abused them, can apply to the National Redress Scheme.

“Previously, in Victoria, one of the only avenues available was the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal,” says Thomas McCredie, Senior Associate at Mazzeo Lawyers. Mr McCredie has run a number of cases for clients who have experienced child sexual abuse.

“To access victims of crime compensation, it is very helpful if police have investigated the matter, but this can present difficulties when dealing with historical cases of sexual abuse where offenders may no longer be alive, where witnesses are no longer around, or where the institution no longer exists. There are also caps on the amount that can be awarded, which often don’t allow victims of child sexual abuse to be adequately compensated.

“Another possible option is to commence court proceedings, but the same issues can arise and there are the added legal costs, as well as the difficulties in establishing liability and negligence. These can all be barriers to a successful claim for historical sexual abuse.”

Removing barriers

The National Redress Scheme removes some of these barriers. Mr McCredie says the level of evidence required is lower, the process is quicker, and the Scheme provides access to three key elements:

  • Counselling
  • A redress payment (up to $150,000), and
  • The option of a personal response from the institution, most often an apology.

Mr McCredie says an apology is often an important outcome for abuse victims.

“The acknowledgement from the organisation that harm was done and that they are sorry for these actions often goes a long way. The apology is important from a psychological perspective and can assist in helping people move on,” he says.

“Counselling is critically important as it provides support for victims to deal with issues that may have been buried for years. The financial redress is also key because a lot of victims have terribly disrupted lives in terms of education and employment. A financial award often goes towards further counselling services and securing longer term financial interests, such as housing.”

But a consideration to be weighed up beforeapplying to the National Redress Scheme is that an award from the Scheme precludes making a claim via the court process, and vice versa.

Looking ahead

Mr McCredie says the Royal Commission has been ‘incredibly beneficial and impactful’ and he believes the climate around historical child sex abuse has changed.

“In the past there has been real doubt cast on people coming forward with historical allegations of sexual abuse,” he says.

“Through the Royal Commission there seems to be a general acknowledgement of just how widespread this issue is, as well as an understanding of how and why those affected might present in a certain way. I hope this provides some comfort and encouragement for people who want to come forward to do so.

“Some clients feel the Royal Commission has provided an element of justice, because people who otherwise wouldn’t have been questioned about certain actions were required to give evidence. In a court process very rarely are witnesses examined or cross examined because matters are often settled before trial,” adds Mr McCredie.

“The Royal Commission has also gathered a lot of evidence about institutional child sex abuse cases. Prior to that, unless a police investigation was undertaken or people came forward as witnesses and gave evidence, there were very few other options to get information or evidence to support a claim. A lot of claims have come to court because of the Royal Commission.”

Thomas McCredie is a Senior Associate at Mazzeo Lawyers

e tom@mazzeolawyers.com.au

T +61 3 9670 5999

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