The Anglican Church says church property cannot be sold to pay compensation to abuse victims because it is held in charitable trusts.
The Anglican Church has warned the royal commission into child sexual abuse not to assume multibillion dollar church assets can be sold to compensate abuse victims.
The warning comes in a submission to the commission from the titular head of the Australian church, Brisbane archbishop Phillip Aspinall, and two senior church officials.
They were responding to a finding by Simeon Beckett, counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, that the Anglican Diocese of Grafton had enough assets to settle abuse claims from former residents of an orphanage at Lismore in northern NSW.
From evidence presented at a public hearing in November, Mr Beckett found the diocese put its own financial interests above the needs of abuse victims.
The diocese pleaded poverty when it came to finding money for people subjected to horrifying abuse in the North Coast Children’s Home in the 1960s, yet sold considerable assets to service a debt incurred when it built a loss-making girls’ private school.
Dr Aspinall has now expressed concern that Mr Beckett’s finding did not sufficiently “acknowledge the fact that most church property is held in charitable trusts”.
The Primate urges the commission to “examine the terms under which assets are held before concluding that they are available for a purpose such as paying compensation claims”.
He refers the commission to Section 32 of the Anglican Church of Australia Trust Property ACT (NSW) 1917, which covers constraints on varying trusts.
The submission on behalf of Dr Aspinall and two senior office-holders says it is up to Grafton to answer the specifics of Mr Beckett’s finding.
“However, it is important for the commission to understand some general matters that are likely to be relevant to all dioceses throughout Australia.”
In January, Mr Beckett recommended 59 findings, which will form the basis of the commissions’s final report into how the Anglican Diocese of Grafton responded to complaints of abuse at the Lismore home.
The follow-up church submission and Mr Beckett’s response to it are available on the commission’s website at: www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au
Mr Beckett has reiterated that while Grafton assets were held in trust: “The evidence established that the diocese was able to liquidate a substantial number of assets in order to service the debt incurred from the Clarence Valley Anglican School … but did not do so for those claiming they had suffered from child sexual abuse”.
The issue of compensation or redress, the term favoured by the churches, has arisen in each of the six case studies examined by the royal commission. The charitable trust status of churches and other institutions is a barrier to suing them because a trust cannot be liable for abuse.
The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sexual abuse recommended churches be made to adopt incorporated legal structures which would remove that barrier.