Follows on from JAGGED #5
Chapter 16: Mental illness and the Law.
Have you, as a person who carries a permanent form of depressive mental illness, ever launched a legal case against the Catholic Church for damages? As a Victim/Survivor of institutionalised childhood sexual abuse I did so three years ago. It was not a lot of fun.
Anybody reading JAGGED knows by now why I carry that permanent form of depressive mental illness. In launching my action against the Church I sought justice, acknowledgement, compensation, and access to professional level remedial therapy. The Rolling Stones said it all – you can’t always get what you want – and in this case I certainly did not even remotely get what I needed.
In relating the following legal material I am aware that, no matter how badly I feel about what transpired, the best I can really do is relate the facts to you – both how I saw those facts unfolding, and how I felt about their impact on me …
When I initiated a claim against the Catholic Church for abuse suffered under their care at St Vincent’s Orphanage I had little idea how much that legal process would highlight the divide between what I am capable of handling in a rational-thought manner, and what I am incapable of handling in a rational-thought manner. The legal process brought that divide into very sharp focus because it so amplified the strength of my depression. The longer the case went on the less capable I became.
I am not a lawyer, the law is fog-city to me, so always bear that in mind. I am a Survivor (even though I do not like using that word) of childhood sexual abuse. As a Survivor who was exposed to some aspects of the law I would like to say some things about my legal experiences over the last few years.
I initiated the claim three years ago and now, looking back, I am pretty aware that I needed an advocate or advocacy organisation at certain points in the legal process to assist me to fully understand the consequences of some of the decisions that I was being asked to make. It is pretty hard for me to admit to something like that.
The legal process I entered into was pretty cut and dried. No Win No Fee. My lawyers were good, and further on I will tell you how very good they were, but they were not there to ‘tell’ me what to do, they were there to receive ‘instructions’ and then act upon them – which they did to the best of their ability.
If you refer back to Chapter 14 you will come to an understanding of what I was able to tell my lawyers about the abuse I had suffered at St Vincent’s Orphanage. I was able to talk of some things in a halting manner, but I was totally incapable at that time of speaking about matters such as the ‘visitation’ family and the abuse that had occurred there.
When you have a level of depression that shuts you down it is an impossibility to lay everything out coherently in a short space of interview time with a panel of solicitors and a barrister, no matter how sympathetic they are. It is only now, three years after the initiation of my claim and after exposure, via my legal case, to the influence of forensic psychiatrists, that I have found myself able to speak of certain things.
When people say that people like me should find their voice and speak up it needs to be realised that it takes an awful length of time to start speaking and it takes even longer to say everything that is there to be said. My form of depressive mental illness amplifies as I age and that has not been beneficial to my earlier efforts to open up and speak.
Chapter 17: The initiation of my claim against the Catholic Church.
On 8th February 2017 I spoke with Porters Lawyers (Canberra) and launched my claim against the Catholic Church for personal injuries suffered as a result of my being physically and sexually assaulted whilst I was a resident at St Vincent’s Orphanage, Nudgee (“the home”).
I thought that fairness would unfold, and that justice would be done. Babe in the legal woods stuff because little did I realise …
On the 3rd September 2018 a miserably beaten-down depressive wreck agreed to sign any sort of Settlement with the Catholic Church. Anything to stop the spiraling weight of my depression. As my barrister said to me on that day “they’ve just abused you again mate”. He was right, and I knew it.
Porters Lawyers, and the barristers they align with, are right up there in the good people stakes as far as I am concerned. You know, they could not possibly have known it at the time, and this is just a straight truth, their genuinely offered high level of moral support over that period pulled me back from many brinks where I thought it would just be easier to give life away. That is not a dramatic statement from my end, it is simply how things were.
Porters Lawyers were very efficient, and I am not trying to make this sound like an ad for them, rather, I am trying to make a distinction between the people who represented me, and the adversarial legal landscape that they and Survivors have no choice but to try and navigate.
So, while I am critical of that adversarial legal landscape Survivors face, I am not critical of how Porters Lawyers represented me. They steered my claim from conception to completion in under two years – which is apparently quite a feat in legal terms because most civil litigation claims take a longer period of time than that to reach Settlement.
I am very critical of the adversarial legal landscape that Victims/Survivors of childhood sexual abuse face when they initiate their claims because that legal landscape greatly amplifies deeply ingrained currently held traumas and legacies and then adds new layers of trauma as compounding overlays. That is no fun for the lawyers representing the claimant, and it is no fun for the claimant.
We all know that lawyers, and in my case Porters Lawyers, are not mental health professionals and nobody expects them to be – in my opinion they sought to minimise harm to me as a claimant as best they could – and it is hardly their fault that the power of my depressive illness/darkness caused me to crumple at the very time in my case when what was needed from me was a bit of strength. I wish that I’d had a personal advocate with me at that moment in time. But then, why the hell am I so critical of myself in this matter – because behemoths like the Catholic Church are well practiced in the psychological demolition of anybody who dares to stand up against them.
Chapter 18: Keith Edwin Davis vs The Catholic Church – yeah right!
Well, it was hardly a case of derring-do on my part and wonderful enlightened outcomes achieved as an end result I can assure you. A living example of the power of depressive mental illness stood up and pointed the finger at the Catholic Church and then promptly for his temerity got mentally steam-rollered as flat as a pancake as a result.
That last paragraph pretty much sums up how the whole of the legal process affected my mental state.
If anybody thinks that, in the legal setting, the Church is all love light and awareness and mindful of not re-traumatising the Survivor then some hard facts need to come your way.
Just before I lodged my claim a legal practitioner gave me the following warning …
“The Church will seek to demolish you, and your claim. Their lawyers, or others acting for them, will scrutinise every statement you have ever made on social media, they will dissect your work and private life, they will look for your weaknesses and they will exploit them ruthlessly. They will acknowledge nothing. Their aim is to make you buckle under the pressure and just simply go away.”
Mmm – and I had thought that the Church , after assessing me and the legacies I carry from my time in their care, would simply be fair and reasonable. There were many rough learnings ahead.
But what led me to initiating my claim?
It was not just one thing. It was the accumulation of many things and realisations over many years. Sure, the all pervading nature of my mental/depressive illness and being gutfully sick of it played a big part, as did the loss of relationships and work capabilities over the course of my adult life. But the period between 2008 and 2012 brought some hard truths to light for me. The accumulated affects and legacies of childhood sexual abuse wear you down over the years and decades to the point that your ability to function becomes dangerously eroded.
At the time I lost the ability to function effectively in the workplace and for years I ended up mired into a dependency on the welfare system. Centrelink, bless their hearts, made an appointment for me to see a mental health nurse. She was great, and she didn’t muck around, and she didn’t try to soothe me with any sort of stupid euphemistic language. She saw me as a flat out suicide risk – which I was.
I spent time with the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service (CRS) and they managed to quiet my suicide ideation for a period. In 2013 I managed to pick up a permanent full-time job but my anti-authoritarian inclinations (I wonder, not, where those inclinations came from?) soon led to a parting of the ways between me and the employer. In rolled suicide ideation again.
So it was not just one single cathartic moment that led me eventually to initiate a claim against the Catholic Church. It was many things all added up together – and it still took a further five years from my time with CRS to find the oomph to initiate a claim.
When I phoned Porters Lawyers this thought was in my mind – “What happened to me when I was a child was wrong, it has affected my whole life. I want acknowledgement of what was done to me, and I want justice”. Neither of those wants was even remotely met by the Catholic Church.
Chapter 19: What does it take to reach Settlement with the Catholic Church?
It takes a gutting of your heart and soul is what it takes. During my legal journey I was well supported legally by Porters Lawyers. On the other side of the equation my claim was bitterly opposed by the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. Despite all the public protestations to the contrary by the Catholic Church that they care for the welfare of Survivors who were abused under their care – the brutal reality is that when a claim against them arises they go for the throat and try to demolish the claimant psychologically, and try to diminish or negate the claim.
I have to say that it makes me almost physically sick when I see representatives of the Catholic Church on television these days saying how much they ‘care’ for Survivors, and how much they wish to avoid re-traumatising the Survivor during any claimant proceedings. In the legal environment the nice words soon evaporate and the Church becomes nothing less than a vicious attack dog.
I did not have to justify the legitimacy of my claim. Unfortunately for me I was the living proof of the damage done by my childhood sexual abuse experiences and there was sufficient documentary evidence in existence to show same – yet the Church still automatically threw up their ‘go away’ wall and I assume that it was only when Justice Burns in the Supreme Court of Queensland made orders that I be given leave to lodge a Statement of Claim on 15 March 2018 that the Church started to sit up and take things a little more seriously.
As for the Church caring for the welfare of Survivors, well, over the whole two years of my claim I never once met with a representative of the Catholic Church, the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, or the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane. No contact during the period of the hearing of the claim, no contact at Settlement time, and no contact post-Settlement. No acknowledgement of any form. Imagine what that does to the mindset of a person with a deep and permanent depressive illness? So don’t buy into the Church’s public PR on how they treat Survivors because it is absolute bullshit.
Everything about my whole legal process, in the end, came down to a few hours that unfolded on the 3rd September 2018 …
Chapter 20: 3rd September 2018 – demolition day.
It is easy, after an event, to try and re-spin things to make oneself look better, or braver, or more hard done by, or more together or more resolute and things like that. I don’t see much point in doing such things. Reality is reality. On 3rd September 2018 I fell apart mentally. It was bloody hard to self-behold.
And here’s the lead-up …
A requirement of the Personal Injuries Proceeding Act 2002 (Qld) states that in cases like mine the lawyers from both sides, my lawyers and the Church’s lawyers, have to attend a Compulsory Conference at certain staggered times. During those times the lawyers get to discuss the progress of the cases/briefs before them and, if all the necessary paperwork and legal requirements have been met, then the lawyers can then proceed to begin the process for some form of negotiated Settlement or even total negation of the claim, or acceptance that matters are going to move on to the Courtroom. That’s my understanding of what those Compulsory Conferences are all about – mediation sessions of a sort. Lawyers would probably describe them some sort of other way.
An important point to remember here is that I, as the client or claimant, was not invited to attend the conference or the mediation, either by myself or with a supportive advocate or advocacy organisation at my side. I can’t tell you why things are done that way, all I can tell you is that in my case that is the way it was done.
(The year and a half or so leading up to that Compulsory Conference fully re-immersed me in the trauma of what had happened to me as a child, and continually having to relate and relate details of the abuse, especially in the adversarial session with the psychiatrist hired by the Church, dragged me deeper and deeper into my depression. At one point I phoned a friend and asked him to talk me out of the idea of suicide – it is a very difficult thing to do to admit such a level of fragility as that.)
Over the course of an hour or so on the day of 3rd September 2018 I received a series of telephone calls from the barrister who was representing my case at the Compulsory Conference.
He did nothing wrong. He did everything right. He detailed everything that was unfolding in the conference room, and he detailed whatever offers the Church was making to settle the case. At each stage he asked me for a yes/no decision about what the Church was offering.
God knows what he made of my mumbled answers to it all. It was such a highly pressurised situation, conducted over the telephone, and I just did not know clearly how I should react and respond.
At my end it did not just represent an end-point to a time-limited legal process. At my end, on the telephone, it represented THE culminating moment in my whole life. A moment when I might finally receive some form of acknowledgement of responsibility from the Catholic Church for my lifetime of depressive mental illness and the legacies that I carry as a result of my childhood sexual abuse experiences.
There is nothing to hide here. On the 3rd of September 2018 I should have felt some form of positivity, but I didn’t. I’d never felt as bad as I felt on that day. If ever there is a case for arguing that a Survivor of childhood sexual abuse should have a personal advocate onboard during settlement negotiation proceedings then that day is it.
The Church made insulting offer after insulting offer. My barrister kept running back into the conference room to try and marginally improve matters. I don’t doubt that he could hear my confusion and my deterioration over the phone. He was the man who said to me – Keith – they are abusing you again!
I crumpled in, gave up, fell apart and asked the barrister to accept whatever the latest level of offer was. I felt like shit. The behaviour of the Church’s lawyers on that day confirmed that both they and the Church regarded me as nothing better than a worthless piece of shit. It was demolishing.
Since the 3rd of September 2018 the state of my mental well-being has deteriorated markedly.
Chapter 21: The Settlement.
I signed a Deed of Settlement with the Catholic Church in the matter of the abuse I experienced in St Vincent’s Orphanage while under the care of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. I am legally restricted from telling you the details of that Settlement. But there are some things that I can say.
It was a very unsatisfactory and unfair Settlement. A strong man did not sign that Deed of Settlement, a broken man signed it, and the Church had achieved their aim. The fact that my solicitors post-settlement voluntarily dropped their fee level in order to top-up the compensatory segment of my Settlement should tell you everything you need to know.
Under Qld law it is possible, under certain circumstances, to apply to have Unsatisfactory Child Abuse Settlements signed under duress etc to be ‘set aside’. I am investigating what rights, if any at all, I have in that area – Civil Liability and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019 (Qld).
The other more important matter of the abuse I experienced while under the care of the ‘visitation’ family (details contained in the latter part of Chapter 14) is not subject to any restriction or limitation imposed by the Deed of Settlement to my original Claim lodged on 8th February 2017.
I have only been able to very recently publicly disclose the facts of that abuse.
My placement with that ‘visitation’ family, which could only have occurred with the approval of my duty-of-care-bound care givers, in other words those who were responsible for my welfare as a State Ward, is a matter that was not included as part of the Claim that I lodged against the Catholic Church on 8th February 2017.
I have sought legal counsel on this matter this week and, at time of writing, I am awaiting legal advice, which always takes months and months, on the lodgement of a Claim for damages which will include a component for remedial therapy which, I hope, will arrest or mitigate the strength of my life-long depressive illness caused by my childhood sexual abuse experiences.
I am going to say something very rough here to all of those people who were paid by the Catholic Church to oppose my initial claim. For you the law is just a job. For you the law is just a game. For you the law is just about ‘winning’. For me, it is about the life that was taken away from me, it is about my very life. That you can look at yourselves in the mirror without throwing up is beyond my powers of comprehension.
That is all I have to say about these legal things. Engagement with the Catholic Church has been a dis-spiriting and damaging experience – it did not just re-traumatise, it added to the trauma. My advice to any Survivor who is considering treading the legal path that I am currently on is this – do not do it alone as I did – engage immediately with a personal advocate or advocacy organisation right from the start, I cannot understate the importance of doing so. From now on I’ll certainly be engaging that type of support.
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