Peter Kelso spoke frankly with ABC Radio presenter, Jill Emberson yesterday about the Royal Commission, his personal experiences of institutional care, and his insight into the potential impact of compensation claims on institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Salvation Army. Click here to listen to Peter’s interview.
Jill Emberson: I wonder, if in the big day of news yesterday from the New South Wales State Parliament which was all very money talk yesterday, whether you listened and heard the former Premier of New South Wales, Barry O’Farrell, slamming the Catholic Church’s response to child abuse in our region. The former New South Wales Premier hit out at the Church for failing to act on allegations of child sexual abuse within our region. Here’s what he said:
Barry O’Farrell: This is behaviour which would be inexcusable and unacceptable to anyone which I find unbelievable, abominable and frankly, unchristian when found amongst so-called men of the cloth.
Jill Emberson: He is the former premier of New South Wales keeping the public’s attention on the findings of the Cunneen Inquiry, into abuse in our region and then of course there is the broader, big national Royal Commission into sexual abuse soon to announce its interim findings after more than 18 months investigating these abuses right throughout Australia.
Now, it’s come to my attention or it’s kind of obvious I guess, that given that so many cases of abuse have happened in our region, that our local legal fraternity will have been involved in some way; of course they would have because people would have gone for legal advice. When I met Peter Kelso from the Kelso Law Firm the other day, I found out that that was indeed the case for him and he’s kindly agreed to come and chat to us this morning. Peter, thank you for coming in.
Peter Kelso: Thank you for having me, Jill.
Jill Emberson: Is it fair to say that a lot of the lawyers and solicitors in our region have become involved in these findings of sexual abuse with local people seeking legal advice?
Peter Kelso: Well certainly, there would be some. I don’t think there would be a lot of the local fraternity involved but certainly some have been involved for awhile and the prevalence of clergy abuse cases in this region is well above the national average. In fact, sometimes I say to myself, it’s almost like the paedophile priest capital of Australia here so it’s not surprising that some firms are getting involved.
Jill Emberson: Tell me about your involvement in it, Peter.
Peter Kelso: Well, we have a few clients in the Hunter region but most of our clients are in fact national and we even have some clients overseas who were abused when they were in Australia and we even have a waiting list of clients waiting to come on board with our firm. Another interesting aspect too, is the amount of men who are coming forward and we estimate about 70% of our clients in the clergy and institutional abuse area are in fact men which is unusual because up until I’d say a couple of years ago, it was mainly women who were coming forward to disclose and talk to lawyers and to go public about this but now we find the Royal Commission has really shaken the tree and men are feeling free to come forward.
Jill Emberson: Isn’t that interesting that that has happened and I wonder, over the years that we have been discussing this travesty, Peter, it’s always heartbreaking and devastating when it comes up. One of the things that has really struck me is the number of guys; when they have called up, they’ve spoken about one of the devastating things of revealing what happened to them, of the impact that it can have on their marriage. Marriages breaking up on the revelation that they were abused. Now, without revealing anybody’s cases, does that make sense? Does that resonate with you?
Peter Kelso: It does resonate. I could think of at least a couple of male clients right now that come to mind that have told me that once they disclosed to their wife that they were sexually abused when they were a child, then that has been almost, I think, the straw that broke the camel’s back and their marriage has dissolved which is just incredibly unfortunate and actually when I first heard that, I find that hard to believe but it’s not an isolated example.
Jill Emberson: Peter Kelso with me on 1233 ABC Newcastle. It’s seventeen after nine.
Now Peter, when we met the other day you told me that you actually own the website royalcommission.org.au.
Peter Kelso: Actually, royalcommission.com.au.
Jill Emberson: Dotcom.au. Okay, I stand corrected. So, how did you end up doing that and why have you got it and did the Royal Commission ever express interest in saying, “Can we have that please?”
Peter Kelso: Well, it’s a matter of how it happened. I remember the Prime Minister at the time, Julia Gillard, making the announcement of the Royal Commission which I think took a lot of us by surprise and the very next day, I thought to myself I’ve got to become accessible. I’ve got to become known; people out there need to come forward and the most common name people will Google, will be ‘royal commission’ and strangely enough the name was available so I took it. I think it cost me twenty-five dollars.
Jill Emberson: Extraordinary. Were you surprised that it was available?
Peter Kelso: I was very surprised it was available. In fact, it wasn’t for about six months that the Commonwealth contacted me and asked me if I would transfer the name to them.
Jill Emberson: And your response?
Peter Kelso: Well, I just paused and thought and I said, “Uh, no.” [laughter]
Jill Emberson: Even if they doubled your twenty-five dollar investment? [laughter] Now why were you interested? I’ve looked through the site, it’s pretty amazing, pretty busy. What’s your drive in having that website apart from it being a portal, if you like, for people to know they can get legal support through your firm?
Peter Kelso: Yes, it’s a place where people can go. It also connects people to the official Royal Commission site as well which is made very clear. It gives people the opportunity to get news and updates on the Royal Commission. If they go to an official page, there’s probably too much information there. People need the information, I think, put to them in a fairly condensed and succinct way. A way that they can understand and get to the point immediately and the site that I run enables people to do that. Also, I think it screens out a lot of the information available and puts to them, those things which they are most likely to be interested in. It gives them an opportunity to contact my firm, make an enquiry and we respond to that straight away.
Jill Emberson: Because apart from straight legal representation, which I get is the guts of your business, who likes to deal with the law with all respect to your loyal trade, your fabulous trade? I mean it’s not something that most of us have to deal with, so there’s a whole lot of introductory general advice and support that people would need. Has that been the case and particularly in this sexual abuse stuff where I imagine people are at their most vulnerable?
Peter Kelso: Yes, very typically when people contact us through the internet, or even contact us through social media, we’re frequently putting people in touch with the Royal Commission explaining to them how they can start their contact with the Royal Commission with a private session. I think the site, in fact, is a very valuable resource for the Royal Commission. We’ve even presented to the Royal Commission with some of their most significant public witnesses and then of course the Commonwealth allow witnesses to have legal representation during Public Hearings at the Royal Commission. Commonwealth pay for all their legal expenses. A lot of people don’t know that they can have a solicitor and barrister there with them and support them all the way through the public hearing. Also acting as a go-between, between themselves and the media because the media are in fact embedded at the Royal Commission. The media frequently want to contact me and to broker an interview with a client and when they have a solicitor acting for them, the solicitor acts as a buffer and a go-between with the media which people appreciate.
Jill Emberson: Is that financially provided for by the Royal Commission?
Peter Kelso: The Royal Commission don’t actually, at this stage, pay me for my time in dealing with the media but they pay me for everything else. At conferences with the client, conferences with the barrister, appearing at[08.42] the Royal Commission, speaking with people before and after the Royal Commission. That’s all covered by the Commonwealth.
Jill Emberson: So is this really about more business for Kelso’s Law Firm?
Peter Kelso: Well, it is. Actually, when the Royal Commission was announced, and when we set up the website, I actually didn’t know that they were going to be funding people to have legal representation at the Royal Commission. In the beginning, I expected it would be all about representing people one day in a national redress scheme to be set up like they did in Ireland with the Redress Board they set up during the Irish Commission. But, as it turned out, I remember the first time being contacted by a client who’d been subpoenaed to be a public witness asking me to represent her and that was the first time I actually realised that that was a role I was about to play.
Jill Emberson: And how many people have you represented?
Peter Kelso: Well we’ve represented quite a few. We’ve been at the Towards Healing Hearing last December. I represented four clients at the Parramatta Girls’ Home Hearing in February. We’ve just represented two witnesses in Canberra at the Marist Brothers Hearing. We represented one witness in Perth at the Christian Brothers Hearing into Bindoon.
Jill Emberson: Are you personally driven in any way around this matter, Peter Kelso?
Peter Kelso: Well, that is true. I grew up in institutional care myself. I was a ward of the State between 1962 and 1974. I was not sexually abused thankfully but I know what it’s like to be beaten until you think it’ll never stop so I suffered a degree of physical abuse. I suffered forced separation from my seven siblings for seventeen years, emotional abuse and so forth and I do have a heart for people who have been in institutional care and have been abused as a child and that, I think, explains to a large extent the passion that I have in representing them.
Jill Emberson: Is there more legal redress to be sought for people like you who have gone through institutions as children?
Peter Kelso: Well, New South Wales is either the only State or one of the very few States that has never put up a redress scheme for people abused in a State-run institutional care and at the moment, I actually have a brief with counsel seeking to start an action against the New South Wales government and we’re hoping that that might actually prompt the New South Wales government to announce a redress scheme rather than face civil action in the courts.
Jill Emberson: That could be a prospect?
Peter Kelso: That could be a prospect.
Jill Emberson: Peter Kelso, speaking of redress, one of the aspects that we explored here on this programme about a week ago, in fact it was just around the time that I first met you, we’d spoken to a solicitor I think in Queensland, who said to us that the findings to date from the Royal Commission opened, I think I’m quoting him correctly, “opened the floodgates on compensation for victims of sexual abuse.” Do you agree? Not legal but financial compensation?
Peter Kelso: Well, certainly, you mentioned Queensland. I think the comments have even been made by the Royal Commission that it’s over represented in terms of the size of the population for the amount of people coming forward seeking compensation and apologies for their abuse.
Jill Emberson: It’s over-represented in Queensland?
Peter Kelso: It definitely is. I can say at my own firm, the amount of contact we get from Queensland is really out of sight.
Jill Emberson: Wow, okay. People can claim compensation can they?
Peter Kelso: They certainly can. The Catholic Church is certainly willing to pay compensation, issue apologies, meet with people and so forth. We act for people in a lot of settlements with various branches of the Catholic Church. Of course the Salvation Army now has come to light. There have been two public hearings just this year into the Salvation Army. The first time the Royal Commission did a public hearing into the Salvation Army, it caused a 35% spike in the number of people actually contacting the Royal Commission. So that seemed to increase momentum and most people, I think, around Australia were shocked that the Salvation Army had been involved in this way and it seemed to affect their brand very deeply and they’re just in the fairly early stages, in my opinion, of trying to get it right with dealing with victims of abuse in various children’s homes run by the Salvation Army.
Jill Emberson: We had a man in tears in our region on the day, and I’m sure there were tears all around the country of people whose lives had in fact been saved by institutions like the Salvos to hear this devastating news. We hear in the news this week that both the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church were unsuccessful in bidding for homelessness tenders in our region. No firm evidence that this is a by-product of their exposure in these stories but it does raise the bigger question of whether as institutions they can withstand the brand and financial damage that is likely to come as a result of more and more findings. From what you’ve seen and know of our region, Peter Kelso, can these institutions, churches, Salvos withstand what I will imagine, amount to millions and millions of dollars in compo claims?
Peter Kelso: Well, Jill, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens there. I often wonder to myself what will the Catholic Church look like in ten or fifteen years’ time from now. What will the Salvation Army look like in ten or fifteen years’ time from now? Will they both be very much scaled down operations and we know that the Catholic Church is very, very wealthy. The Royal Commission heard this year during the Ellis Hearing that their assets in the Sydney archdiocese alone is close to $1.3 billion. They make in Sydney alone, I think, about $46 million profit on their investments every year. So we know they have a lot of money. We heard from Archbishop Coleridge of the Brisbane Catholic diocese earlier this year that they are a wealthy diocese and he even said that his diocese would assist other dioceses in chipping into a national fund. But, the question about whether the churches, whether these traditional denominations can withstand the onslaught of compensation claims – we’ll have to wait and see and my thought on that is, I don’t think they’ll handle that very well. I think that they’ll be very much scaled down operations. Some people have even said they might even end up meeting in homes.
Jill Emberson: What an incredible change of circumstances. It’s hard to imagine. On one level, Peter Kelso, that’s hard to imagine but on another hand, maybe it’s not. I mean, okay, $1.3 billion in assets in Sydney. Hundreds and hundreds of people claiming compensation, that kind of money can disappear fairly readily.
Peter Kelso: It’s not all that hard to imagine I suppose when you consider that in a number of Catholic dioceses in America, they have sought bankruptcy protection as a result of court settlements and you’ve got to remember too that in America, the average court settlement is about a million dollars. Lawyers’ contingency fees run at about 50% in America and the average claimant against the Catholic Church is clearing about half a million dollars themselves.
Jill Emberson: Half a million, okay. That’s fascinating and it is a great insight as we proceed through this Royal Commission, Peter Kelso. I’m very glad you gave us your time to come in and see us this morning. Just before we head to the news, you said you were raised in an institution and separated from your seven siblings. Where did you find them?
Peter Kelso: I found them when I was twenty-two. I asked the Child Welfare Department if they could find them for me and they found them in Newcastle and that’s why I’m in Newcastle. I came up here thirty years ago after my reunion with my brothers and sisters which was a very successful reunion and my wife decided this is what we would do and she agreed with me and we moved up here and this is where we’ve made our home.
Jill Emberson: It’s a fantastic story and it strikes me that you’re making a valuable contribution in return for that long journey, Peter Kelso. Thanks for coming in.
Peter Kelso: Thanks, Jill.