June 2024


Child sex abuse victim wins damages payout

by Resolve Editor Kate Tilley

A Tasmanian judge has set aside a 1994 settlement agreement that prevented a child abuse victim from taking further action against the Anglican Church and ordered a damages payment of almost $2.4 million.

John Thomas Steen, now 53, was sexually abused by priest Louis Daniels, who led the Church of England Boys’ Society (CEBS), of which John Steen was a member. (Later Dr Steen after obtaining two PhDs.)

The abuse occurred on four occasions between 1981 and 1987, when Dr Steen was aged between 10 and 16.

Tasmanian Supreme Court Justice Michael Brett ordered the agreement effecting a settlement between the parties be set aside in the interests of justice under the Limitation Act 1974.

When Dr Steen was aged 23, he engaged a lawyer to take legal action against Mr Daniels and the Anglican Diocese for the sexual abuse. His lawyer approached the then Anglican Bishop, Bishop Newell, and legal negotiations began.

That resulted in a settlement and a deed of release. Under the deed, Mr Daniels agreed to pay $34,000 in damages, including legal costs. Dr Steen provided a full and comprehensive release from any future liability for Mr Daniels and the church, including CEBS and Bishop Newell. The deed included a confidentiality clause.

Before Justice Brett, the Diocese argued the deed provided an absolute defence against further action.

Dr Steen argued it should be set aside under the Limitation Act. He also argued the deed should be rescinded under the general law because it was unconscionable and/or for fraudulent misrepresentation.

Dr Steen sought compensatory damages, including for loss of earning capacity, plus aggravated and exemplary damages.

Remote location

Dr Steen had attended CEBS annual summer holiday camps at Conningham, outside Hobart, which was a “relatively remote location”. Mr Daniels was the camp director when he perpetrated the sexual abuse.

Dr Steen told the court he was confused and scared, particularly because of Mr Daniels’ position as “the man who represents God”.

He told no one, including his parents, what happened because he was young and Mr Daniels was “a highly regarded and popular priest”.

He felt shame and guilt and knew the priest’s actions were wrong. But he enjoyed the camps and his involvement in CEBS gave him an important social network and support, particularly when his parents’ marriage was failing.

Eventually church members were told of the assaults against Dr Steen and two other boys. Dr Steen met Bishop Newell and, although the process was stressful and intimidating, he felt relief he had “been listened to... and taken seriously”.

He was frustrated that another boy, known as AB, who had not made a complaint, but later felt guilty because AB committed suicide on 11 May 2004.

Justice Brett found Bishop Howell and other church hierarchy at no stage offered, or even inquired about, support for Dr Steen, nor did the Bishop suggest Dr Steen report the abuse to police.

The boys expected the Bishop would ensure Mr Daniels had no further opportunity to abuse children. Justice Brett said that “consolation was misplaced and quickly destroyed by the actions of Bishop Newell” and others within the church hierarchy.

Church admissions

The Diocese admitted that, in 1981, a complaint was made that Mr Daniels had sexually propositioned a 14-year-old boy.

Janet Coop, Bishop Newell's secretary from 1990 until the Bishop’s 1998 retirement, became aware of the allegations against Mr Daniels in 1994 and leaned of his subsequent resignation as a priest.

She gave evidence of documents relating to Mr Daniels being put in archive boxes and was told they were taken to a garage in the Hobart suburb of Moonah. She noticed all references to Mr Daniels on her computer had been removed.

When the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse started investigating, she was asked to help Bishop Newell prepare his responses to written questions from the commission.

Justice Brett said Bishop Newell and others’ early focus was on protecting the church from harm arising from Mr Daniels’ conduct, not the welfare of the children affected.

By 1981, responsible church members were aware of Daniels’ prior sexual misconduct against a child, but he continued to work as a priest and be involved with CEBS. “The latter gave him unfettered and direct access to … children, including in the unregulated and isolated circumstances arising from the CEBS camps,” Justice Brett said.

Mr Daniels resigned in December 1994 after new allegations of sexual assault against another boy were revealed to Bishop Newell. Church hierarchy were told the resignation was “for personal reasons”. Mr Daniels left Tasmania and continued church work in the ACT and taught in public schools.

Jail sentences

On 28 May 1999, Mr Daniels was sentenced to 12 months’ jail for four counts of indecent assault and two of unlawful sexual intercourse committed against a 15-year-old youth in February and April 1992. On 13 May 2005, Mr Daniels was sentenced to a further 7-1/2 years for a series of sexual crimes, including four counts of maintaining a sexual relationship with a young person and several of indecent assault and attempted indecent assault, perpetrated between January 1974 and December 1993.

Justice Brett said some of that time was while Mr Daniels was in positions to which Bishop Newell had promoted him, despite being aware of Dr Steen’s sexual abuse.

During the trial, Justice Brett heard that Mr Daniels faced further charges, some of which were for offences against Dr Steen. Court records showed Mr Daniels subsequently pleaded guilty to two counts of persistent sexual abuse of a young person, one of which was the assaults committed against Dr Steen. On 12 May 2023, Mr Daniels was sentenced to another six years’ jail.

When legal negotiations began in June 1994, Dr Steen’s lawyer said he was willing to accept $55,000 plus costs to settle his claim against Mr Daniels and the church.

The eventual settlement was for $34,000, of which Dr Steen received $29,690 after costs were deducted. The deed was signed by Bishop Newell on behalf of the church and associated organisations, and by Mr Daniels, who was personally responsible for the payment.

Dr Steen gave evidence that, had he been aware of the church’s “conspiracy” and “high level of criminality”, he would not have signed the deed. “I would have gone to the police.”

Justice Brett said the church’s liability for Mr Daniels’ intentional acts arose from its vicarious liability for his conduct.

Mr Daniels had “acquired both the opportunity and occasion to commit the sexual abuse by virtue of the special role … assigned to him by the church and its associated components, including CEBS”.

Oppressive conduct

Justice Brett agreed the deed was an “absolute bar” to Dr Steen’s claim, unless it was set aside or rescinded.

Dr Steen’s claim alleged two causes of action against the church — vicarious liability for the intentional tort of trespass to the person, and liability for its own negligence in failing to discharge its duty of care to Dr Steen.

The church’s refusal to take responsibility, and to “stand behind” Mr Daniels, and its use of that position to lower expectations on the settlement amount by referring to Mr Daniels’ limited means and the prospect of wider publicity if the church itself contributed to the payment, was “oppressive conduct”.

That conduct strongly supported Justice Brett’s finding it was in the interests of justice to set aside the agreement. Notwithstanding his legal representation, Dr Steen at the time was “vulnerable because of his age and the psychological consequences of the … sexual abuse by a priest, who had subsequently been promoted by the church to higher office”.

Critical information was withheld from Dr Steen and the settlement amount was “completely inadequate … even according to norms of the time”.

The church’s approach to the settlement was heavily influenced by its desire to protect its public reputation.

Dr Steen’s view the church was untrustworthy and dishonest in its response to his allegations caused emotional and psychological pain throughout his life.

“This pain has been particularly apparent during events which have prompted him to revisit the abuse,” the judge said. For example, while negotiating the settlement agreement and during his involvement with the royal commission.

Justice Brett said Dr Steen had “a poor work ethic and a significant problem with the excessive use of alcohol” in his first year at university.

With support from a friend’s parents, his academic performance improved and he eventually completed an honours degree in biochemistry in 1992 and enrolled for a PhD in biochemistry.

Mental health

Dr Steen gave evidence his mental health deteriorated, he suffered depression and, at times, contemplated whether it was “worth continuing my life”.

He had received no psychological counselling before 1994, when he decided to take legal action against the church, nor had the church ever offered any.

After being contacted by the commission in 2015, he made a statement but found the process difficult and traumatic. He elected to give evidence via video link from Brisbane, where he was studying, rather than attend the commission’s hearing in Hobart, saying he “wasn’t psychologically able to do it”.

He watched Bishop Newell's evidence, which he found “infuriating” but “was delighted because the [commission’s] work actually uncovered the lies”.

Dr Steen gave evidence he was unlikely to be able to work for much longer.

His work difficulties were directly related to the stress, anxiety and other symptoms that had affected him throughout his life and were a consequence of Mr Daniels’ sexual abuse.

He said there was a “past pattern I have had throughout my career of having periods of wellness where I do really well and then ... something happens and I ... have a collapse and then I need to rebuild ... I don’t have the energy to go through the rebuild process again”.

Justice Brett said the sexual abuse impacted his school performance, including his academic results, his university education and his professional life.

The church did not dispute that but argued the impact of the sexual abuse should be assessed against “the outward indicia of a successful professional and personal life”.

Dr Steen had achieved and maintained a happy family life, participated in activities shared with family and friends, and his professional life had been successful and fulfilling.

While those were taken into account, they did not “reduce the significance of the impact of the lifelong psychological impairment, which has been a constant and unwanted feature of [Dr Steen’s] life, and which would not have been but for the sexual abuse perpetrated by Daniels, compounded by the [church’s] negligent and damaging response”.

Justice Brett said: “The symptoms come in waves that are sometimes more intrusive and damaging than at other times.”

He awarded damaged totalling $2,396,531, consisting of:
Pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life – $275,000
Aggravated damages – $125,000
Exemplary damages – $100,000
Past impairment of earning capacity – $350,000
Future impairment of earning capacity – $1,182,720
Future loss of superannuation benefits – $155,940
Past medical and associated expenses – $10,000
Future medical and associated expenses – $71,711
Interest – $126,160

Steen v Trustees of the Diocese of Tasmania [2024] TASSC 3 (15 Feb 2024)

ABC article published after the trial.

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