The Catholic church tried to stop a survivor suing it over the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of a parish priest in northern New South Wales, despite its own records showing it knew the man was a paedophile but did nothing other than move him from parish to parish.
On Friday, the NSW supreme court rejected the Catholic church’s request for a permanent stay of proceedings brought by a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted in 1968, when she was 14, by Father Clarence Anderson, a priest with the Lismore diocese.
The church had argued it could not possibly have a fair trial and that the case was “unjustifiably oppressive” due to the passage of time and the deaths of the priest and clergy with knowledge of the matter.
But church documents obtained by the woman’s lawyers, Ken Cush & Associates, show Anderson’s superiors had observed as early as 1965 that he had a “sexual interest in children”, which he was prepared to act on.
The church also held records of complaints from the parents of other boys abused by Anderson.
Other documents showed he was temporarily suspended from his office and told to undergo psychiatric treatment, which he did not persist with.
The court heard the church allowed Anderson to continue accessing children, moving him from parish to parish when complaints were made.
In early 1971, the archbishop of Brisbane’s office was directly warned about Anderson by the parish priest of Kyogle, Monsignor Ryan. Ryan said he had directly witnessed Anderson sexually assaulting a boy.
“These conclusions I reached from observation of him handling boys in the school playground and in his car,” he wrote to the the archbishop’s office. “From the upper floor of the Presbytery I saw him on one occasion with a boy spreadeagled under him over the car bonnet, performing what seemed to be sexual movements upon the boy.”
Ryan told the archbishop he had also been approached by a father who said the priest had abused his son and six others. Anderson was stood down by Ryan, only for the monsignor to find out he had been “appointed to a Parish further down the coast, Macksville in fact, with the direction to go monthly to Sydney for treatment”.
The court found the documentary evidence “amply demonstrates that Father Anderson’s misconduct was well-known to his superiors, well before the event relied upon by the plaintiff”.
The woman’s lawyers also presented evidence from another five children who said they were abused by Anderson, including four children from Macksville.
One recalled that Anderson was known as “the surfing priest”. Some of the boys were coached by Anderson. Others were taken out by him shooting or surfing.
Justice Stephen Campbell found the church had not done enough to prove the “exceptional” circumstances required for a permanent stay of proceedings.
“A trial of the issues in this case would be no mere charade calculated to bring the administration of justice into disrepute amongst right-thinking people,” he said.
Campbell also noted that the church’s own submissions in seeking a stay had helped convince him that it had enough evidence to defend the claim.
The survivor told Guardian Australia she welcomed the decision.
“I want to thank my legal team and especially thank the court for carefully considering my matter,” she said. “I am so pleased that I can continue to present my case and seek justice from the court.”
In 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that jurisdictions abolish time limitations to bringing abuse cases, prompting changes across the country, including in NSW.
Campbell noted that the removal of limitations showed parliament believed “child abuse actions should be permitted to proceed despite the effluxion of even long periods of time and an inevitable resulting degree of impoverishment of evidence, provided a fair, not perfect, trial can be had”.
The church was approached for comment.