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Bishop agrees to be sued for past sex abuse claims -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: A Catholic bishop in regional Victoria has made it possible for victims of historic child sex abuse to sue the diocese in a court of law.

The current Bishop of Ballarat says he is willing to stand in the place of his long-dead predecessor to deal with negligence claims that date back to the middle of last century.

The Bishop's stance flies in the face of the Catholic Church's approach during the famous Ellis case, when a sex abuse victim's attempts to sue the Archdiocese of Sydney failed, because the bishop at the time of the abuse was deceased.

Charlotte King reports.

CHARLOTTE KING: It's a dramatic about face for the Catholic Church.

Each Catholic diocese and religious order has been instructed to make it possible for sex abuse victims to sue them individually for negligence, even when the person who was in charge when the alleged abuse occurred is long-dead.

PAUL BIRD: The Bishop carries the history of the community with them, and so if the community, in a way, is going to address the history, they can do that through the Bishop.

CHARLOTTE KING: The Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird, has volunteered to put himself forward as a defendant.

His diocese has perhaps the worst record of clergy child abuse in the country.

The notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale is responsible for much of that abuse.

Bishop Bird's stance means Ridsdale's early victims, abused when the former Bishop James O'Collins was in charge up until 1971, can now sue the diocese.

PAUL BIRD: It may in some cases be covered by some insurance, in other cases it would be the diocese itself that would have to meet any costs.

CHARLOTTE KING: The reputation of the Catholic Church has suffered a significant blow in Ballarat. Is this about trying to restore that image of the Catholic Church here?

PAUL BIRD: The substance is what's more important. If we do what's fair and right and compassionate, then the image will improve.

CHARLOTTE KING: Almost a decade ago when the former altar boy John Ellis brought the Archdiocese of Sydney to court for clergy abuse he suffered in the 1970s, it was a different story.

He was hoping to pave the way for other victims to achieve justice through the courts. Instead, his case was knocked back on a preliminary point.

JOHN ELLIS: Well it was obviously devastating at the time, you know, to have the courts decide that no, in fact you can't sue church entities. I felt that I'd done a great disservice to other survivors of abuse.

CHARLOTTE KING: Viv Waller is representing the victims who were abused during the reign of the now deceased Bishop O'Collins.

She says the allowing the threat of court action is positive for abuse victims, even if the matter is settled privately.

VIV WALLER: I think it means that survivors of sexual assault enter those negotiations on a more equal footing.

In the past the church and church-related authorities have been able to dictate what level of compensation a person may get, because historically there's been no viable alternative.

CHARLOTTE KING: Francis Sullivan heads up the Truth Justice and Healing Council, which wrote the policy directing the Catholic Church to be more accommodating with victims.

FRANCIS SULLIVAN: We've made it clear to the church leadership that this issue had to be remedied, and that the policy needed to be focused more on the needs of the survivors.

CHARLOTTE KING: If Archbishop Pell had done what Bishop Bird is doing, would that have made it possible for John Ellis to sue the Archdiocese of Sydney for damages?

FRANCIS SULLIVAN: Possibly.

CHARLOTTE KING: John Ellis says the church's changed stance goes some of the way to redressing the pain he endured from a court experience that, in his words, felt like being hung out to dry.

JOHN ELLIS: The church, Catholic Church, and other churches, need to be in the same position as any other institution in society, that they're subject to the law of the land.

And to put themselves outside that system really sends the wrong message to the community.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Solicitor and sex abuse survivor John Ellis, ending that report by Charlotte King.