JULIA Gillard’s royal commission into child sex abuse is bracing for an avalanche of claims from tens of thousands of victims and a potential compensation bill that could exceed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Three much narrower inquiries into child abuse at state institutions in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania have provided for payouts of $269 million to about 14,000 claimants over the past decade, an average of just over $19,000 each.
Lawyers and victims groups say the national inquiry is much broader in scope as it covers churches and other organisations. They say any compensation scheme recommended by the commission could be swamped with claims.
The six commissioners, who will meet today in Sydney for the first time, are guided by the terms of reference, which state the inquiry “has to ensure justice for victims through the provision of redress by institutions”.
Victorian lawyer Angela Sdrinis, who has acted for more than 1000 child sexual and physical abuse victims over the past 20 years, said redress schemes in WA, Tasmania and Queensland had resulted in thousands of successful applicants. “I do think that in Australia, it (a national inquiry) would run into the thousands,” she said. “If we look at the sort of numbers that came before the redress schemes in other states, I think you are looking at an estimate close to 100,000.”
Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Cathy Kezelman said she expected there could be at “least tens of thousands” of victims seeking compensation and many more wanting to testify.
Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Damian Scattini said it was a “sad” but possible statistic that tens of thousands of people would come forward to make claims. “You have a generation (of this abuse and cover-up) going on. People who say it could be in that range, they are probably right,” he said.
Compensation of $117m has already been paid to 5000 people in WA, 1600 people received a total of $52m in Tasmania, and a redress scheme in Queensland dealt with 7400 claims at a budgeted total cost of $100m.
The only similar national inquiry into child abuse, held in Ireland, is expected to pay E1.36 billion ($1.72bn) to at least 13,000 victims. “This is much, much bigger than that (the Irish inquiry),” Broken Rites spokesman Wayne Chamley said. “These organisations will have to have deep pockets.”
Lawyers have told The Australian they believe victims who have received financial settlements in the past should not be disqualified from getting another payment through any redress scheme recommended by the commission.
Ms Sdrinis, a partner at law firm Ryan Carlise Thomas, said she believed claimants who had already received compensation should be entitled to a “top up”.
John Ellis, a Sydney lawyer who has led several successful court challenges to such settlement deals, said the churches’ biggest fear was that the royal commission might allow these people to make new claims.
“It’s something probably that the churches are more worried about than anything else because I think for various reasons they have been able to get, on the face of it, a great many settlements where redress has been patently inadequate. People have been talked into settlements on the basis of misleading information about the perpetrators, effectively being told they are the only (victim) when the church had received a number of complaints or was otherwise aware of other conduct by the priest or brother.”
Source: The Australian, 16 January 2013