The controversial scheme set up by George Pell to handle sex abuse claims against Melbourne’s Catholic Church spent almost as much money paying its independent commissioner as it did compensating hundreds of victims.
The church’s own figures reveal that between 1996 and March 2014, the archdiocese spent $34.27 million to run its so-called Melbourne Response, but only $9.72 million – or 28 per cent of it – was used to compensate 307 child sex abuse victims.
Former archbishop George Pell established the Melbourne Response in 1996.
Former archbishop George Pell established the Melbourne Response in 1996.Credit:Nine
The bulk of the money during that period was spent on other operational costs for the scheme, including $7.8 million to employ barrister Peter O’Callaghan, QC, as its independent commissioner, and a further $4.7 million on general legal fees.
Mr O’Callaghan’s job was to determine the credibility of victims’ claims and make suggestions about what action to take against alleged abusers.
Another $432,000 was used to fund the compensation panel that made recommendations about ex gratia payments, and $11 million was used to fund the church counselling service known as Carelink, most of which was spent on staff and administration.
The figures, contained in a spreadsheet labelled “strictly confidential”, are the most up to date the archdiocese has ever been required to provide publicly. They were subpoenaed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as “supplementary information” and until now have been buried in thousands of documents that form part of the commission’s landmark inquiry.
But as Pell awaits the outcome of his appeal over the historic sex abuse of a choirboy in 1996 – the same year he announced the Melbourne Response – the expenditure has reignited anger among those who have long argued the scheme was designed to minimise the church’s legal and financial liability.
“These figures show how the Melbourne Response did more to benefit the people who designed it, rather than help the victims," said Jim Boyle, whose late brother, Gavan, was abused by Monsignor Penn Jones, a former archdiocese chaplain who would later become the chairman of the Catholic Church’s insurance company. "It was a racket."
Under the Melbourne Response, the independent commissioner investigates allegations of abuse and makes a determination based on the evidence. Victims can then be referred to Carelink and/or the compensation panel.
Jim Boyle, whose late brother, Gavan, was abused by Monsignor Penn Jones, says the Melbourne Response was more beneficial to those who designed it than victims and survivors.
Jim Boyle, whose late brother, Gavan, was abused by Monsignor Penn Jones, says the Melbourne Response was more beneficial to those who designed it than victims and survivors.Credit:Eddie Jim
But compensation payments were deliberately capped by the church – first at $50,000, and later lifted to $75,000 – and survivors were required to sign a deed of settlement waiving their right to take civil action.
The archdiocese declined to respond when asked if it stood by the system, which is under review following the creation of a national redress scheme.
However in a statement, Mr O’Callaghan, who retired in 2017, defended the initiative and said it would be "a big mistake to attribute the whole of the fees of $7.8 million to my dealing with complaints of child sexual abuse".
Peter O'Callaghan, QC, gives testimony about the Melbourne Response at a Victorian parliamentary inquiry in 2013.
Peter O'Callaghan, QC, gives testimony about the Melbourne Response at a Victorian parliamentary inquiry in 2013.Credit:Justin McManus
"Leaving aside the substantial amounts of overhead expenses," he said, the fees also covered sexual and physical abuse complaints under the Melbourne Response, his participation in a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into vulnerable children, and the cost of "meeting the constant attacks upon the Melbourne Response generally and the Independent Commissioner in particular".
"The Melbourne Response was world first innovation in dealing with the issue of clerical child abuse," Mr O'Callaghan said.
"It was run fairly, efficiently and compassionately and provided a remedy for victims of clerical child sexual abuse, where none had previously existed. Whilst I was Independent Commissioner I dealt with complaints in the order of 400. Only 3 per cent of complaints were not accepted."
The Melbourne Response was set up by then Archbishop George Pell in 1996 and continued by Denis Hart when he took over as Melbourne's archbishop in 2001.
But critics have argued that the process lacked compassion: for instance, a 2015 study by Melbourne lawyer and advocate Judith Courtin for Monash University found that most of the people she interviewed ended up feeling "re-traumatised" by the experience.
Jim Boyle, whose brother Gavan died in 2005 from lung cancer and self-imposed malnutrition, agreed. He believes Gavan’s abuse was compounded by the lack of psychological and pastoral support he received at Carelink that year, which was then under different management. The church, however, has previously rejected this.
Sacrificial altar boy
Other parts of the Melbourne Response have also come under scrutiny. The royal commission raised concerns that it was “not sufficiently independent” of the archdiocese, and that there was the “potential for conflict” given the church’s law firm, Corrs, were also the lawyers responsible for the scheme.
It also found that Mr O’Callaghan provided advice to two victims that discouraged them from going to the police. One of those victims was Paul Hersbach, who was abused by Father Victor Rubeo in the 1980s. The other victim was known as Mr AFA and was repeatedly sexually abused as a teenager by Father Michael Glennon.
Mr O’Callaghan testified that he felt he had an obligation to inform complainants about what might happen if they went to the police. But the commission wrote: “Having regard to Mr O'Callaghan QC’s defined role, this advice was not appropriate.”
The archdiocese declined to comment when asked about the future of the Melbourne Response – noting that current archbishop Peter A. Comensoli was busy in Rome – and refused to provide updated figures on its expenditure.
However, in February, the day after suppression orders for George Pell’s conviction were lifted, Archbishop Comensoli told ABC radio that he expected the Melbourne Response would likely “come to an end in due course” given a national compensation system was now in place.
“I think most people, if they wish to seek a redress process, will go towards that rather than Melbourne Response,” he said.
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