CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses child sex abuse.
The Diocese of Wagga Catholic Church has fought to reduce the amount of compensation a jury awarded to the victim of a paedophile priest at a Victorian Supreme Court hearing on Friday (17 November).
Last week, a landmark jury verdict against the Diocese saw a former alter boy (known by the pseudonym TJ) awarded a record $3.3 million payout in relation to the abuse he suffered at the hands of Vincent Kiss in the early 1970s, when Kiss was a parish priest in Wagga.
While Kiss was later jailed and convicted of multiple offences, the jury in this civil trial found that the Wagga Diocese was liable to pay TJ compensation for failing to protect him.
The victim was awarded $1.1 million for pain and suffering; $965,000 for loss of earnings; and $1.3 million for exemplary (also known as punitive) damages, which is designed to punish and deter malicious behaviour.
A hearing before Victorian Supreme Court Justice Stephen O’Meara on Friday gave lawyers for the Wagga Diocese the opportunity to challenge the legal basis of the jury verdict on exemplary damages before the judge enforces it.
Barrister Roisin Annesley KC, representing Bishop of Wagga Mark Edwards (head of the Diocese since 2020), outlined her objections.
“There is insufficient evidence and the lack of a legal basis for an award of exemplary damages,” she told the court.
“There is no evidence that the bishop knew of the complaint… there is no evidence that the defendant had acted in deliberate, reckless or disregard of the [victim’s] right.
“We say that the mere admission of the complaint without anything more cannot properly form a basis… that the bishop knew about the complaint or that he failed to act on it.”
Barrister Jonathan Brett KC, representing the victim TJ, dismissed this argument.
“The power to set aside a jury verdict… is a power to be exercised only in the clearest of circumstances. It’s our submission that these are by no means the clearest of circumstances,” he said.
“The perpetrator had agreed that the abuse occurred by his plea and, what’s more, the diocese had acted on that by making a compensation payment at an earlier time… so there was complete agreement between the perpetrator and the victim that the abuse occurred.
“It’s our respectful submission that the jury verdict should stand.”
Lawyers for TJ will also be claiming a further $1 million in interest payments. There was disagreement between the two sides over how this interest should be calculated. The judge invited the plaintiff and defendant’s lawyers to make written submissions on this matter.
A further hearing on this civil case is scheduled for Friday, 24 November.
The jury verdict was the first in Australian history against the Catholic Church and the first time punitive damages have been awarded against the church.
Kim Price of Arnold Thomas and Becker, the firm that represented TJ, said it would be the highest amount the church has ever paid out to a victim.
“This sets a landmark precedent and will force the church to seriously, finally, reconsider its belligerent attitude,” he said.
“This case went to trial largely because the church refused to acknowledge the impact of the abuse on our client. He has now been vindicated.”
The church had previously claimed the victim was only entitled to $250,000 through its redress process, which was done outside the court system.
TJ was 14 when he first met Kiss at Wagga’s St Michael’s Cathedral in the early 1970s. Kiss abused him over a two-year period.
In 2002, he pleaded guilty to offences that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s against four teenage boys, including TJ.
Kiss, who is now 91, has also been jailed for stealing $1.8 million from a charitable trust he had been employed to administer.
The civil Supreme Court trial against the Wagga Diocese was held in Victoria because TJ is now a resident of that state.