Addresses and Statements

ABC Radio National Breakfast, 22 May 2015, James Carleton interviewing Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP

22 May 2015

ABC Radio National Breakfast, 22 May 2015, James Carleton interviewing Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP

Audio link:

James Carleton (JAC):

Well, this week on RN Breakfast you've been hearing the litany of horror from victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy in Ballarat.  Apart from written statements, no senior figure from the Catholic Church has spoken of the harrowing testimony and its implications for the abusers and the Church itself and there are some questions still to be answered, not least the allegation that the Church is still using the so-called “Ellis defence” to protect its money and assets from civil claims by victims.  This morning, we are joined by one of Australia's most important and senior Church figures, the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher.  Archbishop Fisher, welcome to RN Breakfast.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP (AAF):

Good morning, James.

JAC: So, what's your reaction to the evidence you've heard from Ballarat this week?

AAF: I'd heard much of it before.  It's quite appalling, the sheer number of cases and the individual tragedies and the suicides.  It's probably the worst story, I think, in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia and it just, it sickens me.  It brings me to tears to hear how the victims have been so damaged and how priests have betrayed their trust and how leaders have failed in supervising and we've got to do things better in the future.

JAC: And we've heard the evidence that your predecessor as Sydney Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, at the time the Bishop of Ballarat, the allegation was he offered a bribe to a victim to keep silent over the abuse of priest Gerald Ridsdale.  Cardinal Pell firmly says that is not true in a statement he made from the Vatican.  But should he come back to Australia to affirm that under oath and answer any other questions the Commission may have?

AAF: Well, James, he was never the Bishop of Ballarat but he was a priest there at Ballarat and he's entirely co-operated with the Commission.  Any time they've asked him to give testimony he's done so and I'd expect he would again if they asked him to come back or if they asked him to have a video link as they did last time, that he would do so.  He's said from the start he wants to co-operate completely with the Royal Commission and I'd expect that to continue.

JAC: The Commission has found him wanting in the way he handled many aspects of this, and indeed he has said as much himself, he has regrets.  But what message do you think was sent, then, by his subsequent promotion to high office in the Vatican?

AAF: I think that he was given a different job because it was a job that needed to be done and he had a real record at cleaning up corruption and cleaning up the failures of transparency in financial matters, so it was the right job for him.

JAC: Administratively, that's a compelling argument but can you understand from a victim's perspective it may seem that errors were made and then a promotion was given?

AAF: Well, certainly errors were made and fortunately, Cardinal Pell was very open about that and very apologetic.  It's not like he's pretending that the Ellis case or the Foster case or some of the others where errors were made that the Church's record was perfect, quite the opposite.  He was very open about the mistakes he made and apologetic about them and I hope that people can hear that.  I understand that some people are cynical about Church leaders apologising.  They think we don't really mean it or that we're just protecting ourselves.  I think he was very genuine when he said he was sorry about the way the Ellis case was handled or the Fosters or some of the other cases.

JAC: Maybe that misunderstanding may come from the fact that he was promoted rather than demoted.

AAF: Well, people are calling it a promotion.  As the Church sees it, it's just a different job and a job that he was the right man for but he was, as I say, entirely apologetic.  It's not like he's in any denial about what went wrong.

JAC: Let's look at the Ellis defence, you mentioned the Ellis case.  This is the legal precedent that has been used to limit the amounts of compensation victims can receive with the Court of Appeal holding that the Church as a whole does not exist as a legal entity.  Have a listen to what Jesuit priest and Professor of Law, Frank Brennan told this program this week:

FB: The Royal Commission dealt comprehensively with the Ellis defence and published a very condemnatory report of Cardinal Pell and the Archdiocese of Sydney and the handling of that case in February.  Three months on, I know there's still been no official response by the Archdiocese to that but I think it is a very damning report and it's very clear that  in terms of principle any social institution including the Catholic Church has to provide an entity which can be sued.  You know, I would hope that, for example, Archbishop Fisher, the Archbishop of Sydney, would make an official response to the Royal Commission's report on the Ellis defence and say it's just not on.

JAC: So, Archbishop Fisher, will you rule out using the Ellis defence now and in the future?

AAF: Absolutely, James.  I already have.  I was puzzled by Father Brennan's remarks because he would surely know that it's right on the front of the Diocesan webpage that I have responded to the Royal Commission's findings in the Sydney case, the Ellis case.  Cardinal Pell admitted that the mistakes with John Ellis, that he wasn't treated in a Christian and compassionate way and I've echoed that.  The Church should've resolved his matters rather than putting him through a court process and since then, our whole approach to these things has changed quite radically.  We are determined that when allegations are made that the victims are treated with justice and compassion.

JAC: And that means not using the Ellis defence?

AAF: Absolutely.  We have been very clear that what we do for victims is as far as possible, don't put them through a legal process at all, help them to settle outside of court.  If they want their day in court, then we will help them identify who is the person to sue – the perpetrator, obviously – but also the body that supervised them and make sure that's backed with insurance or assets so they will get their damages, they will get a settlement.

JAC: But if that body to sue is not the Archdiocese of Sydney, you have no power to compel the body to direct that the Ellis defence not be used.

AAF: I have said with respect to all Sydney cases and the Bishops and religious leaders have said with respect to all the cases in Australia that anyone suing should be told who is the appropriate person to sue and ensure that they are indemnified or insured so that people will get their damages and get their settlements.  There really is no case in Australia at the moment where people are facing not knowing who to sue or not having an appropriate body to sue with respect to the Catholic Church.

JAC: Well, Viv Waller who acts for ten victims of Gerald Ridsdale told this program this week that the Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird, has advised he is unable to commit to not using the Ellis defence.

AAF: I think that what she said was that she simply got no reply to her letter to him but the published policy of all the Bishops of Australia and all the leaders of the religious congregations is that we will assist anyone suing the Church in these matters to identify the proper person or persons or entities to sue and ensure that they're properly backed up with assets so that people will get their damages and their settlements.  There really is no case, including any case that I know of that Vivian Waller has identified, where somebody doesn't know who to sue or can't sue anyone in the Church.

JAC: Sure, but are you saying as a fact that every one of the, is it 28 territorial Dioceses and Archdioceses around Australia, and the hundreds and hundreds of Catholic orders around Australia, in every single one, if there are current or legal future proceedings underway, on no circumstance will the Ellis defence ever be used?

AAF: It's already the agreed position of every Bishop and every leader of a religious congregation in Australia that we will not be seeking to protect our assets by avoiding responsibility in these matters; that we will not leave people without an appropriate entity to sue.  That's our published position.  If somebody, somewhere, is not doing that, I'd like to know but so far I've not been shown a single case of that actually happening in Australia right now.  It may be it happened in the past and I'm ashamed if it did happen but at present what we do, always as far as I know, certainly always in my own Diocese is ensure that people know the right person to sue, if they want their matters resolved outside of court that we do that in a very pastoral way, and we're calling on the government to give people a third option of having an independent redress process.  I think that in the end is what people are really looking for.  They don't want to go through the gruelling process of court, and they don't trust the
Church to investigate it.  So I think the best way is to have an independent redress scheme and that's what we've joined the victim's groups in calling on the government to institute.

JAC: Do you support this Greens motion being proposed in the NSW Parliament from David Shoebridge, amending the 1936 Act which prevents the Catholic Church property trusts from being sued?

AAF: I think there's some really big problems with the Shoebridge Bill, from what I've seen of it.  He seems to be taking a kind of scattergun approach to the Church that all Catholics will be liable for anything done by any Catholic anywhere and that's obviously unjust.  You need to look at who the perpetrators are and who had a role of supervising them and that's who should be held responsible.

JAC: But what happens when those entities, when the perpetrators are dead and the entities do not have the funds or for other reasons aren't available to serve the compensation needs of victims?

AAF: Then, as I say, we will indemnify and we will insure.  We will make sure there always are the assets to pay the compensation needs of the victims.  There's no case that I know of anywhere in this country where there's been a judgment against the Church or a settlement made and then people found there were no assets to back it or no one willing to indemnify.  We will back these damages awards or these compensation settlements.  The idea, though, that we should just make laws – as Mr Shoebridge wants to – just for Catholics, is thoroughly discriminatory.  What we need is a national approach to this that ensures that every victim gets the redress they deserve, that they get the independent investigation that they want, and that whatever the entity – whether it's the Catholic Church or anyone else – that we don't evade our responsibilities, that we accept what damage has been done and that we pay up when paying up has to be done.

JAC: Does that mean that people who have lost their claims in court when the Ellis defence used to be used can now re-claim against the Church and have those claims guaranteed if they're held to be true by the court by every Diocese and Archdiocese in Australia?

AAF: I think that's a question I haven't thought through yet, James but I do know of a number of cases that have been re-opened where people have come back to the Church and said: “By today's standards what happened back 20 years ago or 30 years ago when I approached the Church wasn't enough and what more are you willing to do for me?” and that has again been treated pastorally and generously.

JAC: The Bishops' conference was held last week.  Perhaps it might be an opportunity to reconvene or some other measure to more fully think that issue through as you mentioned?

AAF: Yes, we do have in between our Bishops' conferences a standing body that can make decisions for us and advise us on those matters and to the extent that, as you say, that there's retrospective judgments to be made here about old cases, I think that's a good question.

JAC: And you think the answer should be “yes”?

AAF: I think that what we see as the standard of justice now should be applied and that is that everyone should have…

JAC [interrupting]: Retrospectively?

AAF: Everyone should have a body they can sue or should have had a body they can sue and so if there was no one they could go to before, of course they should have a body to go to now.

JAC: I appreciate your time very much, Archbishop.

AAF: Very good to talk to you, James.

JAC: Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher.