Thursday, 23 June 2011

Are abuse victims only in it for the money?

If you saw the television programme "Abused:Breaking the Silence" on BBC1, then you would have come to the conclusion that victims are not in it for the money at all, but that if the confession and apology system breaks down and fails, then compensation is all that the victims are left with.

The program was a fascinating insight into abuse by various priests at two preparatory schools in England and South Africa, owned and run by the Rosminian order of Catholic priests to which various boys from all over the world - Australia, South Africa, England - were sent. They were the Grace Dieu school in Leicestershire and St Michael’s school in Soni, in what is now Tanzania. Each one of them, unknown to the others, was abused by various priests, both sexually and physically. Their lives were each ruined by depression, and psychological distress. Even though they lived at different corners of the world, many years later, due to the wonders of the internet, they managed to reconnect with each other, and started talking again. Gradually the subject of their school experiences came up, leading to the mention of one of the abusive priests. This then led to them all doing their own statements of complaint, and sending them to the leader of the Rosmanian order in London.

It is important to emphasise that at this stage they were not after compensation at all, but rather an explanation as to why, instead of being sent to school to learn and be cared for, they were subjected to abuse by their carers. The reaction of the head of the Rosminians was genuine revulsion and sorrow for what had happened. It was obvious at that stage, that he hadn't been advised by lawyers, because he arranged for each of the now elderley abusive priests to write confessions addressed to the boys after he had read the detailed statements of allegations of abuse. Sadly the confessions were not frank and genuine enough for the victims. The letters from the priests were also carefully worded not to actually confess to anything directly, but were full of religious sounding platitudes.

The victims received different sounding letters from different priests. One decided that he wanted to meet the priest who abused him. His travel costs from Australia were paid by the church. Amazingly he found the meeting, although somewhat bizarre and other worldly, quite satisfying, as the reaction he got was one of genuine sorrow and remorse. He said that it had brought him some closure, and that for the first time he could sleep easily at night when he realised that never again would he be depressed.

Other victims, however, got letters suggesting they remembered nothing but were none the less objectively sorry. These victims wanted a meeting, but decided to seek out their abusers rather than wait for an invitation. Amazingly, one of them took in a secret camera to record the meeting. The priest decided to deny everything, which had the not suprising effect of causing abject rage in the victim, who had travelled all the way from South Africa.

Right up to this point in time there had been no talk of compensation. All the victims wanted was a genuine apology, and a reassurance that something would be done to ensure that the same sort of thing would never happen again. Because they didn't get what the head of the Rosminians had genuinely planned for them, they decided to form a Group Action, and seek compensation. Once the lawyers got hold of the Rosminians, all those early genuine platitudes and wishes for apologies disappeared, and were replaced with denials, and words of no comment. The TV company's request for an interview was not surprisingly denied.

Our experience of litigation at Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors, against the Catholic church is that, whilst they make grand gestures about offering counselling, and helping the victims, according to their new policies on child abuse, the process is somewhat contrived, as evidenced here. Once lawyers come on the scene, and litigation is in the offing, platitudes are replaced with hard fought contested court proceedings, pushed to the bitter end, on the basis that the victims will be so worn out by the process, that they will accept an offer of a pittance. One of our group actions, for instance, has been dragged out for 14 years.

So, fascinately, and uniquely, we had, in this programme, good evidence, that all victims are interested in are psychological closure, a genuine apology, and some recognition by the abusers and their employers that what happened in the past was not the fault of the victims, which is what they all think. and will not happen again. Sadly, although in this case they got close, this ideal was not achieved. We don't know what will happen, but in all likelihood what they will be left with is the empty gesture of mean amounts of compensation.

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