Orthodox Jewish Centre offers ‘ground breaking’ compensation packages to victims of abuse in schools

Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre (Centre) is the latest religious institution to agree to compensate individuals who have suffered sexual abuse within the Centre and its schools.

We have previously reported on the decisions of other religious organisations’, including the Catholic Church and the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, to introduce similar redress schemes to students who have suffered sexual abuse at their schools. These events depict a trend in individual organisations offering redress to victims in advance of any national scheme being introduced, as recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission).

Yeshivah Centre’s ground breaking redress scheme

The Centre has set up an independent panel to determine the amount of payments to be made to victims on a case-by-case basis. Payouts will depend on whether a victim is deemed to have suffered:

  • significant abuse ($10,000 to $20,000 compensation);
  • severe abuse ($20,000 to $50,000 compensation); or
  • extreme abuse ($50,000 to $80,000 compensation).

The terms ‘significant’, ‘severe’ and ‘extreme’ are undefined. The offers of counselling and a personal apology are also included within the scheme.

Any person who, when aged under 18, was abused by an employee, volunteer or student at the Centre, its colleges, youth centre or associated community activities is being encouraged to come forward and seek compensation under the scheme.

Victims must show the panel that it was ‘reasonably likely’ that they were abused. This is a much lower burden of proof than if the victims were to go through the courts in a bid to get civil compensation where they would have to prove their case to a much higher level, being that it is ‘more probable than not’ that the abuse occurred.

The head of the independent panel Michael Debinski told the ABC that he doesn’t know how many victims will come forward but it is estimated that there are dozens. One man who was sexually abused at Yeshivah College in the 1980s and 1990s has called the redress scheme ‘a ground breaking development’ and has said that he personally knows of around 15 other victims.

The panel has trained professional social workers who will meet with the victims, assess their claims and assist with psychological care or support. Mr Debinski announced that while ‘Yeshivah funds the scheme, in every other respect we’ve been very careful and diligent to establish it in a way that all of the contact points are independent of Yeshivah’.

Interestingly, Mr Debinski has also stated that the victims will not be asked to sign any release or confidentiality agreement after receiving financial redress and that the scheme still allows the victims to take civil action in addition to receiving compensation from the Centre.

Yeshivah scheme vs other redress schemes

The Centre’s scheme is the latest in a series of redress schemes being offered by religious organisations. Unlike the Centre’s scheme, the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, rather than assessing the severity of abuse in each individual case, is issuing a standard refund of tuition fees to former students who are confirmed victims of sexual abuse. The Diocese of Brisbane covers much of southern Queensland, including St Paul’s School which has been the subject of recent Royal Commission hearings. The other school in those hearings, Brisbane Grammar School, is a non-denominational independent school and as such is yet to address compensation for victims despite calls for a refund scheme similar to that offered to St Paul’s victims.

The Anglican Diocese of Brisbane has pledged to proactively seek out confirmed victims and it has reportedly refunded tuition and boarding fees to dozens of students in the past month. Any new complaints of abuse are to be referred to the police, before a refund is made, to ascertain the validity of the complaint. The refunds are calibrated at the 90-day cash rate to allow for inflation.

In our previous article we reported on the Catholic Church’s new guidelines for handling complaints of child sexual abuse against it and its schools. It should be noted that the Catholic Church, in a similar way to the Centre, has not only introduced a redress scheme mirroring the requirements of a scheme recommended by the Royal Commission, but it also accepts that some victims will opt to take their complaints to court rather than deal with the Church itself. The guidelines indicate that Catholic Church authorities should offer and participate fully and effectively in alternative dispute resolution processes where possible and if avoiding litigation is impossible, take steps to keep costs to a minimum, including by not requiring a claimant to prove a matter which the Church knows to be true or has accepted to be true. The Catholic Church’s guidelines do not indicate how claims will be assessed.

When can we expect a national scheme?

The answer is ‘not anytime soon’ unfortunately. The Royal Commission recommended a $4 billion national redress scheme back in September in its final report on redress and civil litigation highlighting that it is the responsibility of the institutions in which child sexual abuse has occurred, to acknowledge and compensate victims. The Yeshivah Centre, Anglican Diocese of Brisbane and the Catholic Church have heeded this recommendation, while we are no closer to a national scheme.

The Royal Commission gave the Federal Government until the end of 2015 to announce whether or not it would implement a national redress scheme and presently there has been no response. There is not much time left for the Federal Government to make its response but hopefully one will be given within the Royal Commission’s time frame. The Labor Party has however pledged $33 million towards the set-up of such a scheme if they were to be elected into office at the next election.

With no direction provided by the Federal Government, and the Royal Commission hearings publicly ‘naming and shaming’ various institutions for their failure in protecting former students and acknowledging their reports of abuse, these institutions are independently taking proactive steps and extending an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and offering compensation to those who have been victimised in the past.

It is unclear how any national redress scheme will impact upon the schemes established by religious institutions to date.

 

About the author

Cara Novakovic is the Assistant Editor – School Governance. She can be contacted here.

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