GLJ v The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Lismore [2021] NSWSC 1204 (24 September 2021)

The NSW Supreme Court has rejected an application by the Catholic Church for a permanent stay of a claim alleging that a priest sexually abused a child in 1968.

On 31 January 2020, the plaintiff commenced proceedings against the Catholic Church (The Trustees for the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Lismore) for damages arising out of an allegation of child sexual abuse against her in 1968, when she was then aged 14 years.

The plaintiff alleged that Father Clarence Anderson sexually assaulted her in her home while giving pastoral care to her family after her father was involved in a motorcycle accident.

Father Anderson passed away in 1996, and the Church argued that the passage of time and the death of Father Anderson and other members of the clergy with knowledge of the matter meant a potential trial would be “unjustifiably oppressive”. Due to this, the Church petitioned the Court to order a permanent stay on proceedings.

Arguing that her case should not be stayed, the plaintiff relied on subpoenaed documents from the Brisbane Archdiocese, the NSW/ACT Professional Standards Office, and documents provided in response to a Notice to Produce.

The documents showed that as early as 1965, Father Anderson was observed by other members of the Church to exhibit a sexual interest in children and was ordered to undertake psychiatric treatment after receiving complaints from other children’s parents.

The plaintiff also submitted five unsworn evidentiary statements of five other alleged victims of Father Anderson, and a letter from another member of the Church stating he personally witnessed Father Anderson engage in sexual activities with children.

The defendant submitted evidence that virtually all of the relevant senior persons who could give evidence in the current proceedings have since passed away, and that the Lismore Diocese had not received any complaint relating to the plaintiff’s accusations prior to 2019. The defendant also submitted that there was no evidence for Father Anderson having a sexual interest in young girls.

The Court referred to Moubarak bht Coorey v Holt (2019) 100 NSWLR 218; [2019] NSWCA 102 which stipulates that the Court should only use its inherent power to grant a permanent halt on proceedings in exceptional circumstances, and the onus to prove the Court should grant a halt lies ‘squarely’ on the defendant.

The Court was not satisfied that the Church proved on the balance of probabilities that the continuation of proceedings would be unjustifiably oppressive to the defendant, or that it was impossible for a fair trial to take place. Hence, the Court dismissed the Church’s motion and proceedings will continue.

Chamberlains’ regularly acts in relation to historic abuse claims, if you would like to discuss a claim please contact our experienced team for a no-obligation chat.

***Assisted by James Carrick***