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“The Catholic Church is in damage control after one of its lawyers demanded that a child sex abuse survivor repay an out-of-court settlement because she spoke to the media about her case.
Lawyers for the Diocese of Wagga Wagga also sought a public apology from the woman for “untruths” she told to the local newspaper.
But after being contacted by the ABC on Wednesday, the Bishop of Wagga Wagga said he did not instruct the lawyer to make the demands and he would not be pursuing abuse survivor Gina Swannell for the money.
Ms Swannell said she was repeatedly abused by a priest when she was just six years old at a church in Urana, west of Wagga Wagga.
At the time, she was a boarder at the nearby St Francis Xavier school.
Ms Swannell was one of the original campaigners for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In 2013, she was one of the first to give evidence to the commission in private hearings.
She later decided to sue the church and the order of nuns which ran the school, the Presentation Sisters, in the NSW Supreme Court.
She alleged the late Father Charles Holdsworth sexually abused her eight or nine times in the confessional box of St Fiacre’s Church, Urana.
In November, after an interview with the ABC about the church’s refusal to mediate with her, she received an out-of-court settlement.
Last week, Ms Swannell spoke again to the ABC and The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga about the settlement.
Days later she received a letter from a lawyer for the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, who branded her comments to the newspaper as “complete rubbish” and demanded the settlement money back.
In the letter, Tim Abbott from Walsh and Blair lawyers stated: “Your client has clearly breached the nondisclosure condition and [we] therefore request that she return the settlement funds within seven days.”
Mr Abbott went on to say:
“We also note that your client has communicated untruths to the newspaper including comments such as: that she launched legal action against the Wagga Catholic Diocese (which it did not);
“That the church awarded her damage (which it did not);
“She had to fight to the death they were so competitive (untrue);
“That she would never have even got mediation if it wasn’t for the media pressure from the ABC and The Wagga Daily Advertiser (complete rubbish);
“That at the mediation she had to ‘stare down 14 church barristers in the marathon mediation session’ (grossly untrue given the church was only represented by the writer and the mediation took place over a period of about three hours).”
Mr Abbott concluded: “We expect apart from return to the settlement funds that your client publicly apologises to the diocese for the untruths set out above.”
Ms Swannell said the letter had re-traumatised her at a time when she was hoping to get her life back on track.
She denies that she breached the terms of settlement.
“The only thing I agreed to is not to disclose the amount of money,” Ms Swannell said.
“Should I have agreed to accept money and stay quiet, that to me would have been a bribe. If I was then to have taken that money and still kept my mouth closed that would have made me an enabler of the underhanded process that I and many of us are subjected to.”
Ms Swannell said she felt like she had been kicked in the stomach when she read the letter.
“I was nauseous and I was shaking. I was absolutely devastated because the whole time I have fought this fight … for the victims who cannot speak. The ones that are dead, that are friends of mine, all those people waiting in the wings that know this has happened to them, but don’t know how to go about it, that was the fight,” she said.
Francis Sullivan, from the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, said the letter was “ham-fisted” and did not reflect the pastoral approach of the church on child sexual abuse matters.
Mr Sullivan said he had spoken to the Bishop of Wagga Wagga, Gerard Hanna, and was pleased that he had told him the diocese would not be pursuing Ms Swannell for the money.
In a statement to the ABC, Bishop Hanna said while he had instructed the lawyer to send a letter to correct the public record, he did not instruct him to demand the money back nor did he instruct him to demand a public apology from Ms Swannell.
“But I wanted to make the point a mediated agreement was made in good faith and should be respected by all parties,” he said.
The bishop later said the lawyer had acted “independently” in making the demands because the bishop was away on holidays at the time.
He said he intended the retain the services of the lawyer but in future, the diocese would review his letters to ensure he did not go “over the top”.
Bishop Hanna said the letter was meant to be an “expression of our disappointment that it had come to this” and that he had instructed the lawyer to “close it down, as we agreed we would”.
Mr Abbott stood by his letter and said he believed it was appropriate.
He said he took “general instructions” to send the letter from the business manager of the diocese, because the bishop was away on holidays at the time.
Ms Swannell said she would never be silenced.
“Everybody who has encountered me during this fight knew I was in this for the people. For the victims, for the little ones, for the children,” she said.
“That’s why I did what I did. That’s why I will continue to do what I do. Because I will never be quiet about sexual abuse of children. Ever.”