Church’s legal defence ‘dismantled’ after sex abuse pay-off thrown out

A victim of sexual abuse who signed away his rights to sue the Catholic Church has had the settlement overturned in a landmark Supreme Court judgment, paving the way for hundreds of other survivors to seek compensation.

The man, known as WCB, was paid $32,500 in 1996 in exchange for his silence after he was repeatedly sexually abused as an altar boy by Warragul priest Daniel Hourigan.

The Supreme Court in Melbourne.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned the deed of release, removing the legal barriers for WCB to sue the Catholic Church for damages.

Justice Andrew Keogh described the abuse as "horrendous" and said the evidence supported a "significant assessment of damages" for WCB.

"The settlement sum represents very modest and heavily discounted compensation for the loss and damage suffered by the plaintiff as a consequence of the abuse," he said.

Last year, the state government passed a law allowing courts to set aside a past deed of release or court judgment relating to child abuse.

It is estimated that more than 500 victims signed similar deeds of release, often for small financial payouts, under the Catholic Church’s controversial "Melbourne Response".

Former Melbourne archbishop George Pell, who was convicted in 2018 of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s, was the architect of the Melbourne Response program.

Cardinal Pell was released from prison in April after his conviction was overturned following a successful appeal to the High Court.

"The legal lay of the land has shifted, once abuse survivors were completely legally powerless – now they can fight on a level playing field," said WCB's lawyer, Michael Magazanik.

"The church's legal fortifications have been dismantled."

In its defence, the Church argued that WCB had not shown compelling reasons for the deed to be overturned.

"If relief were granted in this case it might well be granted with respect to all, or certainly very many, historical settlement agreements," the defence argued, according to the Supreme Court judgment.

The court heard that WCB was abused by Hourigan, a priest at the Sale dicoese, over several years between 1977 and 1980 from the age of 11.

The abuse took place at the Warragul presbytery, in Hourigan’s car and on trips to Lakes Entrance, Stawell, Queensland, Ballarat and Orbost, the court heard.

Hourigan died in 1995.

Justice Keogh said he accepted that WCB continued to suffer from the significant adverse impacts of the abuse, which has included struggling at school and work, nightmares and depression, heavy drinking and social isolation.

The matter will proceed to trial in November.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.

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