A LANDMARK court ruling in a pedophile case will increase pressure on governments to legislate to enable victims of sexual abuse by clergy to more effectively sue the Catholic church.
In what plaintiff lawyers described as a blow for victims, a NSW Supreme Court judge has overturned a ruling that enabled five men abused as boys to seek damages from the church's asset-holding trust fund.
The church did not dispute that Thomas William Grealy, known at the time as Brother Augustine, had abused the boys in 1974 at the Patrician Brothers Primary School in the western Sydney suburb of Granville.
In 1997, Grealy admitted abusing two boys, and pleaded guilty to four incidents of indecent assault and one incident of buggery involving one boy.
He was sentenced to seven years jail with a non-parole period of four years.
The case drew considerable notoriety, with evidence that Grealy would, to hide his shame, cover a statue of the Virgin Mary in his office with a coat before commencing the abuse.
The lawyer representing the men, Jason Parkinson from Porters Lawyers, said the decision meant his clients had no hope of compensation since Grealy and had taken a vow of poverty and had no assets.
Mr Parkinson, and NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, a barrister, who is drafting a bill that would enable victims of abuse by Catholic clergy to sue the trust fund, claimed the appeal was another example of the church exploiting loopholes to escape legal liability.
"The Catholic church is throwing a veil over their corporate entity the same way Grealy threw a coat over the Virgin Mary," Mr Parkinson said yesterday.
In earlier precedents, the church avoided liability by claiming that it only existed as a spiritual, not a legal, entity.
With the church itself immune to suits, the Grealy plaintiffs had listed as second defendant the trustees of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Sydney, the legal owner of church's assets including the land on which the Granville school was built. The trial judge accepted the trust as a valid defendant.
But the church successfully appealed against the ruling, with judge Clifton Hoeben accepting that the trustees did not administer or manage the school.
Cardinal George Pell rejected the accusations, saying the Grealy matter "was not a case of avoiding liability".
"When victims of abuse seek damages through legal proceedings, church parties take responsibility when they face potential liability or liability has been established," he said.
"It is of no service to victims of abuse for advisers to suggest that they sue parties which had no involvement with the appointment and supervision of the perpetrator of abuse or any responsibility for the circumstances in which the abuse occurred."