While many have praised the government for issuing an apology to child sexual abuse survivors, a prominent lawyer said it won’t make a significant difference unless serious flaws in the National Redress Scheme are addressed.
Bennett & Philp Lawyers lawyer Mark O’Connor claimed although Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s apology was very much heartfelt, it doesn’t erase the plethora of problems in the system.
Launched on July 1, the scheme promises to support people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse by providing counselling services and monetary payments.
However, according the compensation law specialist, the scheme’s maximum payout falls well short of the payments recommended in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with some victims having to jump through bureaucratic hoops to be compensated.
Speaking to Starts at 60, O’Connor explained the redress scheme’s maximum payment of $150,00 is $50,000 less than the royal commission recommended and is just not good enough for many abuse survivors.
“There is a matrix system for calculation of redress payments abuse, which means that many people who may be severely affected by abuse may receive only a few thousand dollars. I struggle to see how that is consistent with the apology,” he said.
This is exactly the thoughts of child abuse survivor Steve Fisher, who was sexually abused by notorious pedophile priest Garth Hawkins when just a teenager.
The Beyond Abuse founder said it is appalling that the psychological effects of abuse are not taken into account with these victims receiving far less than they deserve.
“The Redress Scheme is so far removed from the Royal Commission it’s not funny…the government cherry picked parts of the recommendations,” he told Starts at 60.
“They are not even looking at the psychological effects that could ruin someone’s life, they are pretty much saying ‘you don’t deserve as much money because you weren’t raped’.
According to O’Connor, while the prime minister promises the scheme is about recognising and alleviating the impact of past abuse and providing justice for survivors, the reality is quite different.
“I spoke to a woman who as a young child was praying in her local Catholic Church. Her parish priest came up and sat behind her in church and told her he would show her how to pray. While he was sitting behind her he relieved himself on her,” he explained. “Apart from eventually losing her Catholic faith, she also had deep problems which affected her throughout her life – under the redress scheme she would receive a maximum of $40,000.
“There was a man I spoke to, who whilst in a youth detention centre which included a farm, witnessed acts of bestiality – this confronted him and contributed to a lifetime battle with alcohol. Under the scheme he may get $15,000.
“I don’t think these payments will provide justice for these survivors or for many more like them.”
O’Connor said he’s also deeply concerned at potential exclusions from the scheme. Under current laws, victims who have been convicted of crimes with sentences of more than five years can apply for redress, but their applications for it need to be considered both by their state Attorney General and the operator of the scheme.
“Often people abused as children have their lives unravel and turn to crime. The redress scheme exclusion qualifier of a five-year sentence came from nowhere. It was a political decision for sure,” he said.
“It is hoped that many people who have these convictions may be given favourable considerations, but we have no information regarding how favourably applications for people with serious criminal convictions will be treated.”
Despite O’Connor’s claims of serious issues that need to be addressed within the scheme, the apology given by the prime minister has been highlighted as a step in the right direction.
Shine Lawyers’ National Abuse Law Manager Lisa Flynn was present at the announcement in Canberra on October 22 and said while Morrison’s words affect each victim differently it will help in the progression towards change.
“I’ve seen thousands of victims damaged by the trauma that is induced when a person is abused. The apology is one step toward restoring faith in the government,” she told Starts at 60.
“The next step is compensating victims to assist them in moving forward, getting access to the right support networks and to psychological and psychiatric help.
“Shine Lawyers currently represents 800 victims of institutional abuse. This is a live issue still being tackled by lawyers like us around the country. Repairing the damage is all of our responsibility.”