Royal Commission releases findings on John Ellis case

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse today handed down its findings in relation to Case Study No. 8, being Mr John Ellis’s experience of the Towards Healing process and civil litigation.

We covered Case Study No. 8 in detail on Catholic Talk during the three weeks of public hearings in Sydney during March 2014. You can find those summaries here.

In its 160-page report, the Commission makes 34 findings in relation to Mr Ellis’ experience of the Towards Healing process and the subsequent civil litigation.

While this blog is not, and does not purport to contain, a comprehensive treatment of all of those findings, it highlights the most critical aspects of the report and also provides some thoughts on how we might understand these as Catholics who are part of the Church, but who are also horrified by the scourge of child sexual abuse.

Background on the John Ellis case

John Ellis was abused when he was an altar boy from 1974 to 1979 by Fr Aidan Duggan, the assistant priest at the Bass Hill parish of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

Mr Ellis approached the Archdiocese in 2002, and his matter was dealt with under the Towards Healing protocols, at times with significant deviations from those protocols and with significant delays.

Under the Towards Healing process, Mr Ellis was offered $25,000 in financial assistance, and this was later increased to $30,000.

Mr Ellis did not accept the offer, and decided to pursue the matter in court. He also made a request that his experience of the Towards Healing process be reviewed, and this occurred on two separate occasions.

These reviews and the subsequent civil litigation were also investigated by the Royal Commission.

When the litigation commenced, the Towards Healing process ceased, including the pastoral aspects of Towards Healing. Due to this, Mr Ellis was not given the opportunity to meet with a spiritual director, even though he had requested this. The Commission looked at this in some detail.

The aspects of the litigation relevant to the Commission’s findings include:

  • a refusal by the Archdiocese to enter into mediation or settlement negotiations after the litigation commenced (based in part on the belief that the Towards Healing process had already attempted to agree the matter in a non-litigious way);
  • a decision to dispute in court whether or not Mr Ellis’s abuse actually occurred, despite the Towards Healing investigation finding that it was probable, and after SA, another alleged victim of Father Duggan, and Mrs Penton, an alleged witness, came forward; and
  • the length of time between an order by the court that Mr Ellis should pay the Archdiocese’s legal fees and a decision by the Archdiocese to waive that requirement.

For more details of the John Ellis case, read our summaries for day one and day two of Case Study 8.

The Towards Healing process

The most negative findings relating to the Towards Healing process are below. Taken as a whole, they reflect not so much that the Towards Healing process is flawed, but rather there was a substantial failure to follow the protocols in Mr Ellis’ case.

In relation to this finding, the Commission highlighted that during his evidence, Cardinal Pell said of the letter “I regret what I did. It was a mistake.” Also, in a submission to the Commission from the Truth, Justice and Healing Council in August 2014, the TJHC (on behalf of the Church parties) accepted that the letter was contrary to the Towards Healing procedures for the reasons cited above.

In its discussion of these findings, the Commission noted that during his evidence before the Commission, Cardinal Pell agreed that:

  • “Mr Ellis was not treated consistently with the requirements of justice and compassion during the Towards Healing process”;
  • “the Archdiocese did fail to follow the Towards Healing protocol”; and 
  • “Mr Ellis’s complaint was dealt with over an extraordinarily lengthy period of time and that this was a failure.”

In his evidence before the Commission, Mr Salmon agreed that the failure to seek Mr Ellis’s consent to the appointment of the Facilitator was inconsistent with Towards Healing. This was the only negative finding in relation to Mr Salmon’s conduct by the Commission, who went on to say that that “in other respects Mr Salmon actively and properly managed Mr Ellis’s complaint”.

The initial offer of reparation to Mr Ellis of $25,000 was also discussed during the Commission. In its report, the Commission notes that Mr Salmon had given evidence that he had thought this figure was “underdone” and that Cardinal Pell told the Commission the offer was “mean” and “not appropriate in any sense”.

Outside of the reparation arrangements (which were discussed above), these next two findings relate to the failure to provide Mr Ellis with a spiritual director after he had made a request for one. The Commission noted that there were concerns about confusion occurring if dialogue continued at the same time as litigation, and accepted Cardinal Pell’s evidence that on reflection, a spiritual director should have been provided.

The final findings concerning Towards Healing relate to two reviews of Mr Ellis’s case commissioned by the National Committee for Professional Standards between December 2004 and March 2005. One review was conducted by Mr David Landa, a former NSW Ombudsman, and another by an Interim National Review Panel. Both of these reviews were critical of the management of Mr Ellis’s case, and the Commission agreed with their findings.

Findings relating to the civil litigation

The Commission also made findings in relation to the civil litigation commenced by Mr Ellis in August 2004.

This finding relates to a pre-prepared Q&A sheet in case of media inquiries. One of the proforma responses said that prior to the civil litigation, the Archdiocese was working with Mr Ellis “to resolve the matter in a supportive and pastoral manner”. In his evidence to the Commission, Dr Casey said that this statement “completely mischaracterises Mr Ellis’s experience of Towards Healing” and this finding repeats (and accepts) Dr Casey’s words.

Cardinal Pell gave evidence which suggested that while Mr Ellis’s matter may have been handled honestly and fairly from a legal perspective, that this was not the same as acting fairly from a Christian point of view, and that the Church had failed in this respect. This finding from the Commission agrees with that statement.

Finding 34 is, I suggest, the most critical of all the findings in the report. It consolidates many of the Commission’s other findings in relation to the litigation.

But this finding, damning as it is, largely reflects testimony given by various people involved in the litigation process on behalf of the Church.

For example, the Commission’s report also notes each of the following:

  • Cardinal Pell said to the Commission: “I do not think that the offer of mediation at the outset of the litigation should have been rejected”;
  • Cardinal Pell gave evidence that the Archdiocese “certainly should have made a counter-offer”;
  • Cardinal Pell noted that “the Archdiocese had accepted the abuse had occurred for the purposes of Towards Healing” and the Commission agreed with his evidence;
  • Cardinal Pell “accepted that the instructions he gave resulted in Mr Ellis being cross-examined and challenged as to whether the abuse occurred, in circumstances which were harmful and painful to him”;
  • Cardinal Pell also gave evidence that the questioning of Mr Ellis was “just too long, too intrusive, hurtful”, that the length of the cross-examination was “quite inappropriate” and the cross-examination was “inappropriate in many ways”;
  • Cardinal Pell told the Commission that he should have told lawyers he thought SA’s affidavit strengthened Mr Ellis’s case (SA was another alleged victim of Father Duggan who came forward at first in 1983, and whose affidavit came to the attention of those involved in the litigation in July 2005);
  • Dr Casey and Cardinal Pell both told the Commission that SA’s evidence should have caused the Archdiocese to reconsider disputing the abuse in Mr Ellis’s case, and Cardinal Pell went as far as to say “the non-admission of the allegation of abuse should not have been maintained”;
  • Referring to the rejection of mediation after Acting Justice Patten’s decision, Cardinal Pell told the Commission that “in retrospect, it wasn’t a wise decision not to enter the mediation”;
  • Monsignor John Usher told the Commission that the resolution of the costs issue took too long, and the Commission agreed with this. 

Concluding thoughts

The findings of the Royal Commission are undoubtedly critical of the handling of Mr Ellis’s case. There is no other way to characterise the findings and indeed, they reflect reality.

Despite the sense of embarrassment and shame that these findings naturally encourage within us, there is also a cause for hope for those of us within the Church.

For each of its critical findings, the Commission noted that the failures had been acknowledged by those involved in the process during their evidence before the Commission. The failures were also acknowledged in the review processes instigated by the Church and Mr Ellis almost 10 years before the Commission began its review.

There is no sense that anyone in the leadership of these matters is in denial of the gravity of the failures contained in the report.

There is nothing in the findings that was not expressed to the Commission – by way of primary evidence or response to questioning - by Cardinal Pell and others during the hearings last March. In many of these findings, the Commission is agreeing with or accepting the evidence of those who appeared before it.

Yes, it would have been better if the failures had not occurred in the first place, but given that we cannot change the past, admitting to them and resolving to do better is, I believe, the best way for the Church to be approaching these failures.

This does not make it any easier for Mr Ellis, and that is something for which we can only ask his forgiveness.

Looking at this with the eyes of faith, I think we can all trust that this very detailed (and very public) examination of conscience will mean that we will all be better going forward. Now is not a time to abandon the Church but to work alongside all those in leadership, confident that the entire Church is firmly resolved to work for the good of survivors and the protection of children.

Monica Doumit, Catholic Talk contributor


Wednesday, 11 February 2015 08:24 Written by 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.