Lessons from the Irish Commission to inquire into child abuse

The Irish government completely underestimated the number of victims of child sexual abuse. Due to public pressure, the Catholic Church was obliged to significantly increase its financial contribution to the Irish compensation scheme.

Barrister Sean Ryan headed up the Commission to investigate the extent and effects of abuse on children from 1936 onwards following the resignation of Judge Mary Laffoy in September 2003. It became known as the Ryan Commission. Mr Ryan completed the Commission’s work and published his report in May 2009. He investigated all forms of child abuse in Irish institutions. The majority of allegations related to sixty residential schools operated by the Catholic Church, funded and supervised by the Irish Department of Education.

Sean Ryan was later made a judge of the High Court, the highest judicial appointment in Ireland, in recognition of his service and dedication.

The Irish compensation scheme was set up by a special Act of Parliament. Compensation was processed by a “Redress Board”. Victims could apply to the Redress Board as well as pursue claims against the Catholic Church. However, if a victim accepted compensation from the Board, the victim had to cease civil action against the Church immediately. You couldn’t double dip.

When the Redress Board ceased accepting applications on 16 September 2011, it had processed 16,081 claims. The average award was A$82,190.00. The largest award was A$392,704.00. The Board paid solicitors reasonable fees. By December 2012, the Board had paid legal costs to 970 firms and solicitors at a total cost of A$225 million.

The maximum compensation payable by the redress board was A$392,000. An award took into account the severity of the abuse and injury with an additional loading of up to 20% for exceptional cases. The Board also paid medical expenses and all costs reasonably incurred in making an application.

The Catholic Church was found to be the main perpetrator. After initially contributing A$167 million in cash assets in 2002 in return for an indemnity deal from the Irish Government, the Church later increased its compensation. This was because the initial contribution covered only 10% of the total payouts. When the Government realised that it had made a gross underestimation of the total costs, it negotiated an increase from the Church. However, the Church’s additional contributions are dependent on its ability to sell property in the financial crisis that is still going on in Ireland.

There are lessons to be learned from Ireland and the Australian Royal Commission will hopefully be looking at these.

I expect public pressure in Australia will force the Catholic Church to liquidate a large slice of its substantial real estate holdings.

The Australian Government has a number of options to pressure the Church to compensate for the wrongdoing of its priests and its betrayal of trust.  I will discuss these legal pressure tactics in another edition.

About Peter Kelso


I am a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. I have been admitted to practice since 1984. I am the principal and founder of Kelso Lawyers which has operated in Newcastle since 1986.

I have been an advocate for compensation for victims of abuse since the commencement of the Victims Compensation Tribunal in New South Wales in 1988. I conduct the largest victims practice in New South Wales. I have a high level of engagement with numerous NGOs such as woman’s refuges, sexual assault services, community organisations and healing centres.

On 31 October 2012 I was a finalist for the Justice Medal, presented by the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales.


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