Church Liability for clergy child abuse

As in other parts of the Western world, the church has been in the spotlight over the last few years in Australia as the scope and impact of sexual abuse committed by clergy, and in some cases covered up by church leaders, has become more apparent. Here the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is doing what seems to be an excellent job in encouraging victims to come forward and report harm they have suffered in this way. It is painful for Christians and others who have supported community organisations like the YMCA to hear the stories of what has happened to vulnerable children who should have been cared for, but instead were in some cases exploited for sexual gratification. But it is vital for the truth to come out about these events, so that victims can feel that they are finally being heard, and where possible receive compensation for the harm they have suffered.

As well as teaching “Law and Religion” as an elective, I teach “Torts” to first year law students. Torts is about civil liability, “suing people for stuff” as I sometimes summarise it. The question of the liability of churches for the sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of members of the clergy provides one area where two of my main academic interests co-incide. Recently I was invited to deliver a paper on the question of holding churches responsible for damages in this area, to a local law firm, Kelso’s, who are acting on behalf of a number of clients who have been harmed in this way. (The firm runs an excellent “unofficial” website connected with the Royal Commission.) The paper can be found here for those who are interested in exploring some of the legal issues.

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