Catholic Church loses bid to have abuse lawsuit thrown out in Australia

Cardinal George Pell Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves after being released from Barwon Prison near Anakie, some 70 kilometers west of Melbourne, on April 7, 2020. | Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

The Catholic Church on Friday suffered a loss in an Australian appeals court after a panel of judges said an abuse case brought by the father of an alleged victim of Cardinal George Pell could proceed. 

The cardinal allegedly abused the boy in the 1990s; his father brought suit against the Catholic Church and Pell in 2022, shortly before Pell’s death in January of this year. The alleged victim himself died of a heroin overdose in 2014. 

Church officials responded to the filing by arguing that the father was not the direct victim of the alleged abuse and therefore lacked standing to sue. 

The Victoria Supreme Court ruled last year that the lawsuit could proceed. On Aug. 25 the Court of Appeal agreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling from last year, ordering that the father could continue with his suit. 

Brisbane-based Shine Lawyers confirmed the decision in a LinkedIn post on Friday, with Senior Associate Gabrielle Verhagen calling the order “a significant outcome for relatives of abuse victims who have suffered psychological trauma as a result of the abuse their loved ones endured.”

“When a child is sexually abused, their whole family suffers the consequences as they grapple with things like new family dynamics, changed behaviors, substance abuse, and a life derailed as a result of this life-altering crime,” Verhagen said. 

“For all abuse victims and their surviving relatives, today is a reminder that the courts will make institutions answerable for the harm they have caused,” he continued. 

Prior to 2018, the Church in Australia had been able to cite what in the country’s legal framework was known as the “Ellis defense,” a principle that shielded unincorporated institutions from lawsuits. That rule was abolished in 2018. 

Pell was found guilty of sexual abuse that same year, though those convictions were ultimately quashed in 2020 by the Australian High Court. 

An Australian royal commission in 2020 said it had determined that Pell was aware of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen by the 1970s but failed to adequately stop it. Pell disputed those findings. 

The cardinal died Jan. 10 from cardiac arrest shortly after hip surgery in Rome.

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