Sydney's Catholic archdiocese has been forced to open its books for the first time, revealing assets worth more than $1 billion and raising questions about why it has failed to spend more on compensating victims of church sex abuse.
Accounts tendered to the child sex abuse royal commission on Tuesday show the archdiocese's total assets have nearly doubled since 2004 to more than $1 billion at the end of last year. Over the same period, its net assets grew from $137 million to $192 million.
The healthy annual net surpluses caught the attention of commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan as he quizzed archdiocesan business manager Danny Casey on payouts to victims since 2001 of just less than $8 million.
Justice McClellan described the accounts as ''commendable from your point of view'' because of the surpluses that ran as high as $44 million in 2007. Last year, the net surplus was $9 million.
Mr Casey: ''Thank you, Your Honour, there were some very healthy transactions in these years.''
His Honour: ''As we have established, the state of these funds is such that it would be possible for the church to spend significantly greater monies in assisting people who have been abused than has been spent so far?''
Mr Casey replied that ''of course'' it was possible to redirect expenditure. ''We could close programs, we could cancel work that we are doing in a particular area.''
''If the earlier responses [to victims' claims] weren't adequate, is the appropriate moral response to go back and revisit them?'' Justice McClellan asked.
''Yes,'' Mr Casey responded.
Mr Casey also said it was a ''very, very bad decision'' not to accept sex abuse victim John Ellis's pre-litigation settlement offer of $100,000 in 2004. The case finished up costing the archdiocese $1.5 million, including $568,000 in ex gratia payments to Mr Ellis.
He agreed with Justice McClellan that the church paid no income or capital gains tax, was free of stamp duty in some circumstances and its funds were generally free from scrutiny because it was not subject to ''external reporting''.
The financial revelations brought angry reactions.
Outside the hearing, Chrissie Foster, the mother of two girls abused by a priest in Victoria (one has died and the other is permanently incapacitated because of fall-out from the trauma), said it was ''quite obscene that the church has this wealth and nowhere in its Christian heart has it even contemplated freely giving help to victims in monetary terms''.
The commission heard the archdiocese's wealth was held in funds including the Catholic Development Fund ($810 million in assets, $771 million in liabilities) which in effect acts as a bank for church entities, and the ''procuration fund'' ($426 million in assets, $267 million in liabilities) from which sexual abuse claims were paid.
Mr Casey said the archdiocese had a relatively large amount in low-returning liquid assets because its ''clients'', including schools, may need access to cash quickly. Archdiocese funds were ''ultimately controlled by - owned by, if you like - the archbishop of the day''.
Mr Casey was asked whether a figure of $360 million for non-current assets, including $180 million in real estate, took in St Mary's Cathedral. He said he was not sure, but the cathedral's heritage listing meant its value was ''very very low. The cost is significant and the maintenance is significant''.
Cardinal George Pell, who has stood down from the archbishop post he had held since 2001 to take up a position at the Vatican, will resume his evidence on Wednesday.
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