13 Nov 2018

Abuse survivors encouraged to speak as inquiry scope widens

6:03 pm on 13 November 2018

A victim of abuse by a Marist Brother says the expanded Royal Commission is the chance for him and many other Catholic old boys to speak up.

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Photo: 123RF

The government has after months of pressure expanded the inquiry into historical abuse to include faith-based institutions.

"We need to stand up and be counted because until today, it was looking really, really dire because we were just being isolated and silenced," said Steve Goodlass, who was abused at St Bernard's College in Lower Hutt in the 1980s.

"Suddenly what we've got is an opportunity to bring forward our stories - because there are a lot of us."

He was abused by Marist Brother teacher Patrick Bignell in the 1980s, and speaks of at least one other clergyman there at the time who molested boys.

The 47-year-old father of four who runs cycle tours in Central Otago, could only watch as the courts in 2015 convicted his abuser for crimes against three other boys, while his own case could not be prosecuted.

He tried the church's own 'Path to Healing but found it sorely wanting, including the total absence of attempts to connect survivors so they could support each other.

"I was never satisfied with dealing with the church that there was true change going to be made.

"They really took an approach to isolate and to silence me, and other people as well. So the justice that we'll get in being able to get our stories out there and for people to understand just how big a thing this is."

He was trying to reach out through St Bernard's informal Old Boys' network, to get others to speak at the inquiry, to make sure this never happened again.

Mr Goodlass hoped the church was sincere in asking to be included in the commission, but also expressed scepticism: "I really hope the church isn't getting behind this to try and shift the load on to the government", citing examples in the US of dioceses declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying compensation.

Another survivor of clerical sex abuse as a child, Grant West, said it was "terrific" the commission had been expanded.

He had led a petition for a full inquiry from his home in Melbourne, as well as leading calls to boycott any inquiry that had a restricted scope.

"I'm lifting that boycott," he told RNZ.

"I am going to return and give my evidence to the Royal Commission and I've heard from other people now that they are going to attend."

The only sour note was that sports clubs and groups like scouts still were not covered, he said.

The President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, Patrick Dunn, told Morning Report he welcomed his Church's inclusion under the terms of the Royal Commission.

"We acknowledge that it is important for those who have experienced abuse to tell their story... and to be believed," he said.

However, the bishop questioned Mr Goodlass' "perception" of being isolated by the Church.

"I was sorry to hear him say he had the experience of being isolated or silenced," he said.

"That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I certainly think that's regrettable if that did happen or if that's his perception of what happened."

He said he had no idea how many priests had been abusers in New Zealand and the extent of the abuse, but he said 7 percent of priests - the figure the Australian Royal Commission came to - "sounded rather high".

Legal concerns

Network for Survivors of Abuse in Faith-based Institutions spokesperson Liz Tonks said there was concern the terms of reference that included the Church would not be legally robust.

She said victims had asked for clarity from the Commission on whether they would be included and so far no assurances had been given, so that there existed a fear a narrow legal interpretation of the terms would apply.

"There is no definition in the terms of reference that defines what they mean when they say 'in the care of a faith-based institution'," she told Morning Report.

"The majority of victims were in day school, they were in roles in the institution like altar servers.

"It is very unclear whether they are included or whether we are only talking about boarding schools or when parents made a legal arrangement by virtue of a contract to pass their children into the care of a church institution."

She urged clarity from the government on the matter to ensure hope given to the victims would not be proven false.

Lawyer Sonja Cooper, who represented many people with claims of being abused in state care, said the two years allocated for a royal commission of inquiry was not enough.

A confidential forum was set up in the mid-2000s for people who had suffered abuse, and it took seven years to report back its findings after listening to 1200 survivors.

Ms Cooper said the inquiry was likely to hear from at least 1200 people, if not "triple, or quadruple that number".

She understood the inquiry would hear from whānau of survivors, and from the state organisations and other organisations that provided care for children, and prepare a report.

"I just cannot see how it could be done in two years, even four years, I think the Royal Commission would be struggling with that sort of timeframe.

"I cannot understand how the government sees that the Royal Commission can credibly issue a report about state care at the end of the two year period, and it expect within that period to have heard all the evidence it needs to hear."

Ms Cooper said if it was going to be an interim report about specific topics, such as compensation and rehabilitation, that would be possible.

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