Wollongong lawyer Mark Johnston still remembers the day Frank* wandered into his office, seeking advice about his dealings with the Catholic Church.
The initial meeting triggered a chain of events, which culminated in a year-long legal battle that allegedly exposed the failings of the Church’s ‘‘Towards Healing’’ program.
Fast forward nearly a decade and the Church’s internal settlement regime is now under intense scrutiny by the Royal Commission into the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.
Some abuse victims have come forward to blast the Church’s ‘‘healing process’’ and its alleged attempt to steer people away from legal action, in exchange for a financial settlement.
Frank was just 12 when his teacher, a Christian Brother at Wollongong’s Edmund Rice College, started abusing him. The abuse continued for three years and no criminal charges have ever been laid against the brother over Frank’s abuse.
'What struck me was how manipulative the whole process was.'
Frank turned to drugs in his teen years and was later diagnosed as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, along with a physical injury as a result of being raped as a child.
‘‘I suffer emotional problems – guilt and shame that I was not able to stop him, anxiety attacks and nightmares,’’ he said.
Mr Johnston is critical of the Towards Healing program, having experienced first-hand the way it was used, he claims, to ‘‘revictimise’’ his client.
He says the Church pressured Frank – a ‘‘sad soul’’ already damaged from years of sexual abuse – into entering a settlement, taking advantage of his financial desperation and naivety to end his case quickly and quietly.
‘‘What struck me was how manipulative the whole process was,’’ he said.
‘‘It was really a case of history repeating itself – these were weak, vulnerable kids who were taken advantage of and abused in the first place and then the administration running this so-called ‘healing’ process would use them again the same way to put their case away.’’
Mr Johnston believes he was also subject to the Church’s manipulation, simply by acting for Frank.
He claims the Church deliberately sidestepped him, omitting him from communication and instead, relentlessly pursued his client.
It then failed to call him to a critical meeting when Frank, desperate to repay debts, signed a settlement agreement.
When Mr Johnston found out, he was furious.
He was convinced the Church had intentionally played him and his client, pressuring Frank to sign the deed when it knew full well, he claims, that Frank did not have the mental capacity to understand the document.
Mr Johnston immediately sought to have the agreement set aside and to get Frank a fairer compensation payment for the abuse he suffered.
Frank did not come forward about the abuse until 2005 when, as an adult, he reported it to the Church.
He was swiftly referred to the Towards Healing program – the Church’s internal system for dealing with abuse complaints – and ordered to see a Church-sanctioned counsellor.
A letter, sent shortly after by Christian Brothers province leader Brother Edward Needham, noted Frank’s allegations were a cause of ‘‘great distress and shame’’ and assured him that he was ‘‘working on the matter’’.
In October 2005, Frank was contacted by the Church about the mediation of his case.
‘‘I had no idea about compensation then,’’ Frank later said.
‘‘I thought I was going to get an apology or maybe that [the teacher] would go to jail but then [the Church] got involved.’’
Mr Johnston claims the compensation amount initially offered was tokenistic and merely reflected the maximum payout then available under the state government’s Victims Compensation Scheme.
The Church was quick to mention the money again, telling Frank he would soon be invited to another meeting to sign up for the compensation.
In early December, the Church contacted Frank again, reportedly telling him: ‘‘If you want the $50,000, you will have to attend a meeting; if you cannot attend a meeting before Christmas, it will not happen until next year.’’
Days later, Frank approached Mark Johnston for help. The solicitor swung into action, informing the Church’s Sydney-based administration, who were involved in the matter, that he was now acting on Frank’s behalf and wanted all communication run exclusively through him.
His request was ignored.
The Church continued to call Frank, sometimes ringing up to four times a day, pressuring him to accept the money.
It organised a meeting for Frank to sign the paperwork on December 22, reportedly warning him he would not be able to receive the compensation if his lawyer also attended.
Mr Johnston strongly advised Frank not to go but the constant stream of phone calls had taken their toll.
‘‘There was so much stress and pressure, I wanted it all over,’’ Frank later told his psychologist.
So when the Church phoned again, he agreed to attend.
On December 22, 2005, without Mr Johnston’s knowledge and in Mr Johnston’s view, with no understanding of what he was signing, Frank consented to the settlement deed. The money was deposited in his bank account the next day.
‘‘After the meeting, I realised I’d been taken for a fool,’’ Frank later disclosed.
‘‘I just wanted the tormenting to stop, the bombarding.’’
When Mr Johnston discovered what had happened, he ‘‘hit the roof’’.
‘‘I went to great lengths to ensure the Church was aware of our position via a number of phone calls, letters and faxes,’’ he said.
‘‘I left numerous messages on answering machines that were never answered – my impression was that the Church were selective with their communication as a means of getting the outcome they wanted.’’
Without his involvement, the solicitor claims, the Church was free to take advantage of Frank’s inability to make any legal decisions.
‘‘It was obvious from my first meeting with him that his capacity to understand was limited,’’ Mr Johnston said.
‘‘He was a simple guy, he’d had numerous problems in adult life so it was obvious he was not in a position to make any proper decisions for himself.
‘‘It would have been clear to the Church too – anyone who had a conversation with him would have formed the impression pretty quick that he would struggle to handle himself in any legal sense.’’
Mr Johnston filed proceedings in the Supreme Court in January 2007 to have the deed set aside, on the grounds of ‘‘undue influence’’, and for additional compensation for the abuse.
The parties negotiated for months before they finally settled outside of court on July 19, 2007.
The Church agreed to pay Frank an undisclosed amount over $150,000 on top of the $50,000 compensation he had already received.
It never admitted any legal liability for the abuse.
The case left a bad taste in Mr Johnston’s mouth.
He became convinced Towards Healing was more about good PR than helping victims.
‘‘The Church had to show they were making some attempt to seriously acknowledge victims because the public awareness of these incidents had increased,’’ he said.
‘‘But it’s clear the Church had more than one motivation – and that’s demonstrated by the deed that clients like mine had to sign, which prevented them from taking legal action in a civil court.
‘‘As soon as I wrote to them [on Frank’s behalf], alarm bells started ringing and they tried to wrap him up quick – the whole theme was that it was all done in a very sneaky way.’’
Mr Johnston is certain other people fell prey to Towards Healing’s spin and is extremely keen to see the outcome of the government inquiry.
He was quick to note he had no criticism of the Wollongong Diocese as they had no involvement in the case.
The Truth Justice Healing Council did not respond to the Mercury’s numerous requests for comment.
The commission returns to Sydney on June 24.
No criminal charges have ever been laid against the brother over Frank’s abuse.
* not his real name
What is Towards Healing?
• The Catholic Church released its Towards Healing protocol in December 1996.
• The document was an initiative of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes to respond to complaints of abuse against Church personnel.
• It required a compassionate response and that assistance, including payment of counselling costs, financial reparation and reparation, be given as demanded by justice and compassion.
• The protocol involved several key steps including interviewing the complainant, interviewing the accused (if available) and then, if satisfied of truth of the complaint, responding to victim’s needs.
Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse: Background
• The commission was established on January 11, 2013.
• Its function is to investigate how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse.
• The commission held a public hearing in Sydney from March 10 to March 26, examining the response of the Catholic Church to the complaint made by abuse victim John Ellis under Towards Healing.
• Other public hearings have been held in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
• An interim report is due in June.