Significant damages awarded for historical child sexual abuse by WA Christian Brothers

26 June 2020

Mr Lawrence was subject to sexual, physical and emotional abuse from the age of 8 to 16 as an orphan under the care of the Christian Brothers in Western Australia. Mr Lawrence received an award of damages for negligence causing psychiatric injury totalling $1,329,500 in the District Court of Western Australia.

In Issue

  • Whether other forms of abuse, particularly physical abuse to which Mr Lawrence was subjected, came within the meaning of the terms “child sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse”, for the purposes of those terms in s 15A of the CLA and s 6A of the Limitation Act.
  • Whether the damages for any injury or loss caused by the sexual abuse should be reduced, because of amending legislation which only allows damages to be awarded for child sexual abuse, not for any other type of abuse such as physical or emotional abuse.
  • The extent to which pre-existing or unrelated injuries and trauma reduce the plaintiff’s claim for loss of earning capacity.

The background

In 1952, at 8 years of age, John Lawrence was sent by ship from England to Fremantle, Western Australia as a child migrant. Upon his arrival, he was taken in by the Christian Brothers at St Vincent’s Orphanage Clontarf (St Vincent’s) and Castledare Junior Orphanage (Castledare) until he was told to leave at the age of 16.

During Mr Lawrence’s time under the care of the Christian Brothers he was repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse, cruelty, intimidation, humiliation, degradation and neglect by Brothers and teaching staff.

Mr Lawrence was able to make a claim against the Christian Brothers because of recent amendments to the Limitation Act 2005 (WA) making special provision for child sexual abuse actions by removing the limitation period and it was brought pursuant to Pt 2A of the Civil Liability Act 2002 (WA) (the CLA).

Mr Lawrence alleged that by reason of the abuse he suffered psychiatric injury which impacted upon all aspects of his life, including his ability to work and earn an income.

On the first day of the trial the Christian Brothers admitted liability for the claim but disputed the quantum of damages. The Christian Brothers admitted that, besides sexually abusing Mr Lawrence, they also physically and verbally abused him, and physically abused other boys in his presence, which they pleaded was unrelated to the sexual abuse and for which he was not entitled to claim damages.

The matter ultimately proceeded to hearing as to an assessment of damages only.

The decision at trial

Mr Lawrence was awarded $400,000 for general damages, $620,000 for past economic loss, $400,000 for interest on past economic loss, $5,000 for future medical expenses and $14,500 for past special damages less $111,000 pursuant to s15K of the CLA, being a total award of $1,329,500.

His Honour found that the physical and other abuse, including emotional deprivation, perpetrated against Mr Lawrence when he was a young boy while living at St Vincent’s and Castledare was so inextricably intertwined and associated with the child sexual abuse that it could not be separated from the sexual abuse.

The violence, cruelty and threats to which Mr Lawrence was subjected by various Christian Brothers created an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and subjugation which provided the basis for and which allowed the sexual abuse to occur and flourish.

The other forms of abuse to which Mr Lawrence was subjected exacerbated the harmful impact of the child sexual abuse because it increased his sense of hopelessness and fear, and his inability to do anything about it, while he was being sexually abused. The physical abuse caused the child sexual abuse to have a greater harmful impact on Mr Lawrence.

His Honour found that Mr Lawrence’s inability to obtain permanent full-time employment and his itinerant working life in labouring and semi-skilled positions was directly caused by his psychiatric illnesses which in turn were caused by the sexual abuse.

Mr Lawrence worked in unskilled labouring jobs for about 50% of the time between 1960 and 1990 before a back injury, which in conjunction with his psychiatric injuries, forced him on to the disability support pension at the age of 45.

Given the time that had passed Mr Lawrence had little documentary evidence to support his work history or lack thereof and the Court had to rely on Mr Lawrence’s accepted evidence in that regard.

The Court also had to consider the appropriate contingency discount to apply to past loss of earnings. It took into account factors such as:

  • his disadvantaged early childhood in England and subsequent abandonment;
  • his traumatic experience as a passenger in a bus crush at age 11 which caused another boy to die;
  • his subsequent rape at age 17 in a farming job after he left the Christian Brothers;
  • the turbulent and harmful relationship with his ex-wife; and
  • his ongoing heart and back problems which have both required surgery.

The Court applied a 10% discount for all factors pre-dating the 1990 back injury which may have adversely impacted upon his working life. A contingency discount of 35% was applied from 1990-2010 (retirement age).

His Honour found that Mr Lawrence was entitled to pre-judgment interest on past economic loss pursuant to s 32(1) of the Supreme Court Act 1935 (WA) at a rate of 6%.

There was no award for exemplary damages as the evidence did not establish that a deliberate course of action was taken by the Christian Brothers’ hierarchy for the purpose of allowing the sexual abuse to occur. There was also no award for aggravated damages as the award of general damages for pain and suffering and loss of amenities included amounts for the insult and humiliation and the degrading nature of the abuse suffered by Mr Lawrence.

Implications for you

For the purposes of s 15A of the Civil Liability Act and s 6A of the Limitation Act, physical and emotional abuse may fall within the definition of “child sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse” where they are related to, contribute to, or exacerbate the sexual abuse. As such, an award of damages for sexual abuse cannot be discounted to the extent of the effect of any other related emotional or physical abuse.

Even in cases of significant other pre-existing or unrelated injuries or trauma, a victim of child sexual abuse that suffers psychiatric injury will not be subject to any significant discounts.

Lawrence v Province Leader of the Oceania Province of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers [2020] WADC 27 (21 May 2020)

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