Abuse survivors have options

Chris was just 12 when he was sexually abused by a teacher at Marcellin College in Melbourne’s east in the 1970s.

That was the day this formerly enthusiastic student says he become “a different person”, lashing out with violent outbursts and failing classes until he was eventually expelled.

Over 40 years later, Chris is seeking compensation against the school that failed him. Understanding the options available to survivors of institutional abuse is an important part of the healing process. 

A life destroyed

Chris’ life changed after his pre-teen abuse began, leading to decades of anger, depression and self-harm.

The school’s principal at the time was Marist brother Lawrence ‘Majella’ Fitzpatrick, who is currently facing historical child sexual offences, though he is not alleged to have abused Chris.

After leaving school, Chris’ mental health deteriorated, attempting suicide on multiple occasions throughout his 20s and 30s, until he finally sought counselling.

“My life was destroyed. I was a vegetable for many years,” says Chris. “I didn’t start full-time work until I was 37. The anger was unbelievable.”

Now 53, Chris is in the process of suing the school for damages, one of two options for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to seek compensation.

Access to justice is available

For those, like Chris, with claims against their former institutions, there are two options available:

  1. The National Redress Scheme, and
  2. A common law claim for damages

Introduced in July 2018, the National Redress Scheme for victims of child abuse was established to provide redress to the estimated 60,000 people who were sexually abused as children in Australian institutions.

It was established following recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Monetary compensation is calculated based on the type of abuse that occurred, and is capped at a maximum payment $150,000 for the most severe cases.

National Head of Abuse Law, Michelle James, said the redress scheme was important, but warned it would not suit all cases.

“It achieves successful outcomes for some survivors because the burden of proof is lower than in civil claims, however payments for compensation and counselling fall short of what was recommended by the royal commission,” says Michelle.

The alternative is a claim for damages, with compensation awarded based on the impact the abuse has had on a victim’s life, including loss of earnings, and pain and suffering, which can be considerably higher than $150,000.

Ms James said that while pursuing a case through the legal system won’t be for everybody, survivors can “claim for the life you should have had, versus the one you have now.”

Taking back control

Chris says that bringing a damages claim through Maurice Blackburn felt like he was “taking back control” over the abuse and its long-lasting effects.

“The lawyers were interested in the story, in the individual case. People get to understand what actually happened, I have the power to tell my story.”

To find out about the legal options for survivors of childhood abuse, visit Beyond Abuse. It doesn’t cost anything to find out where you stand.

Share this article on:

Michelle James

Maurice Blackburn Brisbane

Michelle James leads Maurice Blackburn’s Queensland and Northern Territory road injury, work injury and public liability practices, and is the head of our national abuse law practice.

Based in our Brisbane office Michelle has been working in the legal industry since 1998 and is a tenacious fighter for the rights of injured people. She was admitted to practice in 2001 and is a Queensland …

Read more

See all contributors