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Inconvenient, nuisance or just plain dangerous – The legacy of a victim’s advocate

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Opinion Piece by Hayden Stephens, senior lawyer with Slater and Gordon

Published on

A redacted version of this Opinion Piece appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2nd June 2014.

My eight year old daughter recently wrote in her classroom speech that friendship was “about looking out for others who are lonely”. Even our young seem to know that the litmus test for how a society functions is by the way it treats its weakest members. If someone is vulnerable then who might reach out to support them? And more so, how might we as a community view that act of support?

The role of the advocate in our community must not be underestimated. And yet we do it all the time. Advocates or agitators are so easily shot down, revealing themselves to the line of fire as they fly apart from the flock.

As a young lawyer in the 1990s, I acted on behalf of 240 men who were subjected to systemic sexual abuse at four Christian Brothers’ institutions in Western Australia. Earlier this month, I travelled to Perth to give evidence at the Royal Commission to share their horrific stories; the rapes and beatings that created an environment of sheer terror, night and day, for small children with nowhere to turn. Even to this day, these men suffer silently with the crippling effects of psychiatric and physical disorders that have plagued them, and so too their families.

In that case, we faced a Christian Brothers Order and Catholic Church determined to use every possible legal manoeuvre to ensure that the men’s stories never reached court. Although the outcome for these men was far from what they deserved, it was a privilege to advocate their cause and find at least some solace for them. It was, and remains, one of my proudest legal battles.

We became involved in the case after meeting Bruce Blyth. Bruce was an ex-school teacher who read an article about a child who had arrived at our shores from another country and was abused at a Christian Brothers institution. The story led him to other victims of these hellholes. He went on to establish VOICES, a support group seeking to publish the little known tales of hideous abuse. The group wanted to take-on the Church and ensure more children did not fall victim. Bruce was not a victim himself. He was just a man doing something heroic because he felt he had to.

Without his extraordinary efforts and persistence, these stories of brutality against children may have never been told. Bruce is no longer alive but his agitating still rings in my ears.

In Royal Commission hearings, church representatives have criticised and expressed suspicion of advocates like Bruce. Christian Brothers’ lawyer, Howard Harrison admitted that in church ranks there existed an “ill informed” and “misplaced prejudice” that people seeking compensation in the civil courts were “not deserving”.

In respect to this case, Mr Harrison went on to say that the church took a more aggressive stance because their accusers had been swept up by a “Slater and Gordon juggernaut”. In my evidence at the Royal Commission, I described our suspicion that the Church had tried to divide and conquer – punishing men for engaging us and rewarding those who didn’t take part in our class action. Howard Harrison all but confirmed this in his reply.

The church tactics were clear: at all costs punish the powerless and undermine their advocates who threaten their power. Despite these tactics, “juggernauts” have and remain a force on our landscape.

Robert Vojakovic, a former Wittenoom worker, took on governments around the country in the mid-1980s to help asbestos victims and their families. The result was the ability for victims to bring action against asbestos mining companies and those who manufactured its products. Make no mistake, without his work, asbestos sufferers would have had a much slower path to justice. Now in his 70’s, his advocacy work in crashing through barriers continues today. Another advocate, David Hill, a former senior public servant and author, is helping former students who suffered sexual and physical abuse at Fairbridge Farm School. While not a member of the class action himself, he has seen fit to work tirelessly and use his best agitating skills to help restore some balance for fellow residents who seek redress for their injuries.

But striking that balance sometimes meets resistance. Those in power seek to undermine advocates’ work in less transparent ways. This week, the Federal Government announced a $7million redirection of funds to support the work of the Royal Commission into sexual abuse. That act has been criticised appropriately by advocates for the abused.

Whether it is an eight-year old child who sticks up for a loner in the playground, or one of these trail blazing agitators, each and every one takes a personal risk to advance the cause of someone else. We as a community need to do more to shepherd their efforts from criticism, to enable them to bring to account the wrongdoing of others or the hurt they cause. Because we know that those who have been wronged are absolutely worthy of our support and advocacy.

I recently saw a front-page photograph of a fifteen-year-old girl at a protest. I don’t know her story, but I certainly hope that when my daughter grows up she might be an agitator too.