THE Catholic Church has settled thousands of claims of child abuse outside of its internal complaints' system, Melbourne Response, in an attempt to silence them, a victims' group says.
The Melbourne Response, and its national equivalent, Towards Healing, were launched by the church in 1996 to handle abuse complaints and give pastoral care to victims. The church has traditionally referred to both processes to argue that its approach to abuse has improved over time.
In Good Faith & Associates' director Helen Last told a state inquiry into child abuse on Monday that about 2000 victims had been through alternative ''portals'' facilitated by the Catholic Church, which offered them larger amounts of compensation than they would otherwise have been entitled to.
Ms Last said the Melbourne Response's independent commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan, QC, the Melbourne Archdiocese's business manager and the Catholic Church's lawyers at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, were personally involved in private settlements with victims.
''The Melbourne Response is not the only door through which victims can go to get settlements and have processes done,'' she said. ''There are lawyers and barristers who relate to him that are doing lawyer-to-lawyer settlements with the archdiocese,'' she said.
''They may go to Corrs Chambers Westgarth, who are the lawyers for the [Melbourne] archdiocese and the archbishop and do them there.
''If you know how to open the door then you can go in there and do your process and get a good settlement. That's above the ceiling for the public Melbourne Response. You can get more than $75,000. This is a truly shocking situation for victims.''
Ms Last said that while the Catholic Church was in ''chaos'' before 1996, trying to put ethics pages and codes of practices together, its handling of victims' claims was then ''much better than the huge systemic betrayal and the misdemeanours going on now.
''This has to be made equal, it has to be looked at as what it's doing to people in its inequity and dysfunction.''
Victims of clergy abuse often struggle to make successful compensation claims in court because it is often many years before they report childhood abuse. The Catholic Church is also an entity that is immune from civil lawsuits.
University of Technology Sydney law lecturer Dr Jane Wangmann told the inquiry that the statute of limitations should not apply to institutional child abuse claims, which she said should be heard on their merits.
Dr Wangmann pointed to the problem of private settlements.
''So one claim will settle and the next individual claim has to start again. The lack of transparency around settlement impacts the ability for other claimants who have similar arguments … [who do not have] anything to base their claim around.''
Dr Wangmann said that while class actions awarded much higher compensation than redress systems ''the clear disadvantage is very few of these claims have been successful''.
The Catholic Church declined to comment. Peter O'Callaghan was not available for comment by deadline.