The Catholic Church in Victoria is facing at least 800 new legal actions for child sexual abuse in the wake of landmark legislation allowing victims to sue the church and revisit unfair settlements made under in-house compensation schemes.
The state government's decision to abolish the so-called "Ellis defence" ended the church's long-standing immunity to lawsuits and opened a floodgate of new claims that is threatening the financial stability of religious organisations around the state.
Data collated by The Age and based on case files from eight law firms dealing in institutional abuse found an unprecedented number of legal claims are now before the courts or being drafted on behalf of victims of the clergy.
Among them are lawsuits in the Victorian Supreme Court seeking compensation for abuse by convicted paedophile priests, including Gerald Ridsdale and Paul David Ryan. At least one action has been filed against George Pell. Pell is seeking to appeal to the High Court against his criminal conviction over the abuse of a choirboy.
Hundreds more survivors are preparing claims for compensation to be lodged against the Archdiocese of Melbourne, including cases of child rape at Corpus Christi seminary, as well as the dioceses of Sale, Sandhurst and Ballarat, the Christian Brothers and Marists.
Some of the claims include allegations that church figures ignored or covered up criminal conduct by priests and religious brothers.
Others are planning to use new state laws that allow courts to overturn historical compensation payments by setting aside so-called "deeds of release". These were agreements that forced victims to sign away their rights to take further legal action when they accepted capped payouts through church compensation schemes such as the Melbourne Response.
Some of the claims could be heard in Supreme Court trials, but the vast majority are expected to be settled out of court.
The deluge of legal action will have massive financial implications for the church, which is already struggling with operating losses, ballooning debt and declining parishioner numbers. In Melbourne, Archbishop Peter Comensoli has been forced to sack administrative staff and restructure the church's head office in a bid to keep his budget on track.
But there are also implications for victims, who now face significant delays processing their claims.
Solicitor Judy Courtin said in some cases it could take six months or longer for victims to get appointments with specialist doctors and psychiatrists, which are needed to assess the extent of a person's injuries and potential damages claim. Once a matter is filed, it could also take 12 to 15 months to get a trial date.
"The delays are very concerning, particularly for older survivors," she said.
The Melbourne Archdiocese declined to comment on its financial exposure to the legal actions. But The Age has previously revealed the church owns about $9 billion in property across Victoria, although many of these assets are in the form of heritage-listed churches, or properties being used as schools, nursing homes or outreach facilities.
The Melbourne Archdiocese, which has pledged to meet its compensation obligations through borrowing or selling off its assets, recently listed for sale the multimillion-dollar Kew mansion formerly occupied by Archbishop Denis Hart.
"We continue to meet the financial commitments that we have to survivors when claims are accepted or upheld," spokesman Shane Healy said.
The Diocese of Sale said claims for compensation have put it under "financial pressure" similar to "many other" religious organisations around the country.
"The Diocese regularly reviews its liabilities, both current and, as far as possible, forecast future claims, and then carefully budgets to meet its obligations," Bishop Patrick O'Regan said.
Figures from the Christian Brothers' Australian wing show it has already spent more than $213 million on victims' payouts and legal expenses in the past six years, with the order expecting to outlay at least another $134 million in the future.
Solicitor Vivian Waller, who represented the choirboy in the criminal case against Pell, said her firm, Waller Legal, is now pursuing 315 claims against Catholic organisations in Victoria. This included representing 81 former child victims of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. She said the legislative changes were directly responsible for the recent "wave of litigation".
"Instead of having to go cap-in-hand to the church and negotiate an outcome, there is now a level playing field where the church has to address these cases on their merits."
Some survivors have told The Age they felt empowered to take action in the wake of the Pell verdict, and in particular, after the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Others say they simply want justice.
"The reason I'm doing it is accountability," said one man who was sexually abused by a cleric as a minor, and whose matter is now before the courts.
"They actually don't care. Between the '60s and '90s and the current day, they actually forgot about parishioners. And they forgot about the kids. It was more about money, power, control and [their] standing in the community."
The spike in legal action also suggests that some abuse survivors are shunning the federal government's National Redress Scheme, which provides victims with a maximum of $150,000 but has been widely criticised for only doing so in "extreme" cases.
Federal government figures show that, as of August 30, the scheme had received more than 4800 applications, but had only made 512 redress payments with an average payment amount of $79,700. And 44 Catholic institutions are still yet to sign up, including the Society of St Vincent de Paul, St John of God and the Presentation Sisters.
"In most instances, it provides such inadequate compensation compared to what is achievable in a civil claim that most victims of institutional sexual abuse should not be going anywhere near it," said Arnold Thomas & Becker partner Kim Price.
Maurice Blackburn's abuse law principal Dimi Ioannou added: "The Church has made sweeping statements about this, but refuses to set aside its own internal dysfunction to ensure that its many different dioceses and orders can join the scheme to allow those who have been abused to seek redress."
Ballarat bishop Paul Bird refused to comment on the number of legal actions it is currently facing or whether it can meet its financial obligations. A spokesman for Sandhurst bishop Les Tomlinson said the diocese was not currently subject to any claims but added: "it is expected that any future claims will be able to be met."
The legal actions cited by The Age are also being undertaken by Angela Sdrinis Legal, Slater & Gordon, Rightside Legal and Artemis Legal.