VICTIMS of Maitland-Newcastle pedophile priest John Denham took the first steps this week in what could be Australia's biggest compensation payout by the Catholic Church to child sex abuse victims.
Some victims have sought a meeting with Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone, one month before Denham is sentenced for child sex offences from 1968 to 1986.
The Denham case could produce a total payout greater than the previous known highest Australian payout of $6 million, paid to nine victims of Maitland-Newcastle pedophile priest Vince Ryan.
But it is extremely unlikely to top the known highest individual Australian payout of $2 million, paid by Maitland-Newcastle diocese to a Ryan victim because of the catastrophic impact of the priest's offending.
Solicitors said this week the Denham matter could be Australia's biggest compensation case because there were 39 victims, and because of the successful prosecution of former Vicar-General Tom Brennan in March.
Brennan was convicted of knowingly making a false knowingly making a false written statement.
Newcastle solicitor Kate Maher, of Braye Cragg, who acted for a number of the Ryan victims, said evidence that Brennan didn't act after he was repeatedly told of Denham's offending was similar to the failed duty of care issue raised in the Ryan case.
Evidence that the late Monsignor Patrick Cotter knew of Ryan's sexual abuse and "decided to say nothing" was significant because of the breach of Cotter's duty of care to the children, she said.
Brennan's conviction is believed to be the first successful Australian prosecution of a priest linked to failing to act over another priest's offending, Ms Maher said.
But the impact of another church sexual abuse case that went to the High Court in 2007 remained a "significant hurdle", some solicitors and barristers contacted by The Herald this week said.
Solicitor and sexual abuse victim John Ellis lost his case against the Archdiocese of Sydney, and was ordered to pay the church's $750,000 legal bill, after the High Court refused an appeal to challenge the church case that there was no one to sue because of its internal structure.
What has become known as the Ellis defence outraged the Australian Lawyers Alliance, which called for legislative changes at its NSW conference in March this year to "hold the Catholic Church accountable for its pedophiles".
The unique circumstances of the Denham compensation case will keep the spotlight on Maitland-Newcastle diocese over the coming months, lawyers' groups and victims' rights groups said.
"I think [Maitland-Newcastle Bishop] Michael Malone will have a lot of eyes watching him on this," Newcastle solicitor Nick Dan, who represented some Ryan victims and some victims of pedophile priest Jim Fletcher, said.
In a statement on Thursday, Bishop Malone declined to answer specific questions about compensation and whether the handling of the case remained within the diocese.
"Like any other organisation, I consult with a team of professionals on any number of matters and that requires us to have risk management plans and strategies to deal with issues as they arise," he said.
People "seeking some response from the church" were "invited to access the church's Towards Healing process", he said.
Ms Maher said there were significant concerns about Towards Healing.