The first witness to speak at the public hearing on the Catholic church’s Towards Healing program says she is “now free” and has “broken the shackles” after giving evidence at the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse on Monday.
The commission is to hear evidence from four victims who sought redress through the Towards Healing process, set up by the church in 1996 to respond to complaints of abuse by members of the clergy.
The first of these, Joan Issacs, told reporters: “Just as abusers control and silence their victims, the church had to silence and control people like me.”
Standing with her husband and two sons, she said: “Today was my opportunity to say I will never again be controlled and silenced. The opportunity to give evidence here has been both challenging and confronting. I hope it has been informative to the commission.”
During her testimony Issacs told the royal commission that when she was 14, Brisbane priest Frank Derriman groomed and sexually abused her and several other children – one of whom had a child at the age of 17, fathered by Derriman – in a “cult-like group”.
Issacs told the royal commission she wanted to wait until Derriman’s trial for the abuses against her was over before she sought redress through Towards Healing.
“I felt that if I pursued a complaint with the police and he was found guilty on any of the charges, Towards Healing would be a much easier process to go through, because I wouldn’t have to prove anything any more,” Issacs said.
Derriman was convicted of child sexual assault against Issacs in 1998.
Issacs sought an apology, counselling and compensation from the Catholic church, in line with the outcomes mentioned in the Towards Healing document.
“I particularly wanted an apology not just for the sexual abuse, but also for the inaction by the church after myself and others notified church officials that Frank Derriman was sexually abusing children when I was still at school,” she said.
“That inaction meant that other people went on to suffer greatly because Frank Derriman continued to abuse children.”
In dealing with Towards Healing, Issacs said she faced misinformation, “stonewalling” and gag orders that prevented her from speaking about it to anyone – even her husband and children.
She was also led to believe her husband could not attend facilitation meetings with her, and was not informed until the process was over that the church’s representative in attendance did not have the authority to offer anything except an expression of sorrow.
On two occasions Issacs was also forced to chase up the church authority for payment for counselling sessions, after her counsellor revealed that bills sent to Towards Healing had gone unpaid.
After the lengthy negotiation process, Issacs was offered a “top-of-the-limit figure” of $30,000 compensation.
When she told the former archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, that after “two years of stonewalling” she would have very little of the $30,000 left after legal fees, including $8,000 for Derriman’s solicitor in a civil claim, Bathersby allegedly replied: “That’s your problem.”
“I was utterly defeated and decided to accept the offer and get out of this terrible situation,” Issacs told the commission.
After the payment of legal and health fees, Issacs bought $5,000 in Coles Myer shares and a sewing machine.
In 2001 Issacs received a second draft of a deed of release from Towards Healing, containing a clause that she could not discuss the matter with anyone, including her husband and children.
Last week Issacs received a letter from the archbishop of Brisbane, apologising for the gag clauses.
“I am disappointed that the clauses were considered necessary at the time,” the letter said. “In my view they should not have been included.” It said ssacs was no longer required to abide by them.
Issacs said the letter was “too little too late”.
“I believe that I signed my deed of release under duress. I was silenced for the last 12 years. It has been so difficult to live like that.”
The commission also heard from Kenneth Robertson, the former convenor of the Queensland professional standards office and the Towards Healing representative that Issacs first reached out to.
Robertson said he did not think Issacs had received a just and compassionate outcome.
“First of all [because of] the delay of two years which was absolutely nonsense,” he said.
“I don’t think that the negotiation with regards to the monetary outcome was handled well at all.” Robertson suggested that Towards Healing should stop after the pastoral care process, and financial compensation should be handled by a separate body.
He also conceded that Issacs had been incorrectly told her husband could not be with her during facilitation meetings, describing it as “a slip-up”.
“I don’t know who said to her that he couldn’t come.”
The public hearing continues for an estimated two weeks. The commission will also hear from representatives of the Brisbane archdiocese – including the current archbishop – and the Lismore diocese of the Catholic church, and representatives of the Marist Brothers. Evidence will also be given by current and former employees of the church insurance company.
Source: The Guardian