An over-zealous lawyer had been blamed by the Catholic Church for a ‘ham-fisted’ letter sent to Gina Swannell, above, demanding the return of an undisclosed amount of money she received from the Wagga Wagga diocese in an out-of-court settlement.
Swannell, according to this report, was one of the original campaigners for Australia’s 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 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.
The letter from Tim Abbott accused her of breaching a confidentiality clause in the settlement by lying, and demanded she apologise for the “untruths” she told in later interviews with ABC and The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga.
Days after the newspaper interview she received a letter from the lawyer for the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, who branded her comments to the newspaper as “complete rubbish” and demanded the settlement money back.
But after being contacted by the ABC on Wednesday, the Bishop of Wagga Wagga, Gerard Hanna, said he did not instruct the lawyer to make the demands and he would not be pursuing Swannell for the money.
Swannell said the letter had re-traumatised her at a time when she was hoping to get her life back on track.
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 only thing I agreed to is not to disclose the amount of money. 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.
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.
Sullivan said he had spoken to Bishop Hanna, and was pleased that he had told him the diocese would not be pursuing 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 Swannell.
But I wanted to make the point a mediated agreement was made in good faith and should be respected by all parties.
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”.
But Abbott is standing fast and said he believed the letter was “appropriate”.
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.
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.