Church in $550,000 abuse case

Wellington, New Zealand - A woman is claiming more than half a million dollars from the Catholic church for physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse she says she suffered while in the care of an Upper Hutt orphanage.

The woman, whose name is suppressed by a court order, says she was repeatedly abused at St Joseph's orphanage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The nuns' names are also suppressed.

Now in her forties, she is seeking $350,000 damages, $100,000 aggravated damages and $100,000 exemplary damages and court costs. The three-week hearing begins in the High Court at Wellington tomorrow.

The damages sought are believed to be the highest claimed against the Catholic Church in an abuse case in New Zealand.

The defendants - the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington, Catholic Social Services, the Sisters of Mercy (Wellington) Trust Board and St Joseph's Orphanage Trust Board - deny the allegations.

The Sisters of Mercy say the claim is barred under the Limitation Act 1950, and that they are not liable for aggravated or exemplary damages.

The Archdiocese and Catholic Social Services say the claim for mental injury is invalid because it is covered by the Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2001.

The Catholic Church will be represented by Wellington barrister Chris Finlayson, a high-ranking National list candidate and a Catholic.

Court documents, released after the Sunday Star-Times applied to presiding judge Justice Marion Frater, say the woman was sent to live in the orphanage in 1968 after her parents separated, and stayed there until 1973.

She alleges that during that time and at St Mary's College from 1974 to 1977, she "suffered severe abuse and deprivation of a normal upbringing".

Among her allegations are that she was constantly verbally abused, harassed, harangued, shouted and screamed at by all the nuns. She says she was several times hit over the head so severely that she lost consciousness.

The woman claims she was strapped with a leather strap and ruler, hit with a metre-long wooden stick, and hit over the head by an open hand almost daily.

And she says that during school holidays she was placed in holiday homes and her grandfather's home, where she was sexually abused.

At the orphanage, she says, she was accused of being a thief and of setting fire to a dormitory.

The woman claims physical damage, including perforation of an eardrum that required surgery and further ear damage because she was denied treatment for ear infections.

She also says she endured bruising and pain from beatings, and physical injury and pain from the sexual abuse.

She also claims she has severe emotional and mental damage, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, agoraphobia, suicidal feelings, obsessive thoughts and intrusive memories of past abuse, alcohol and drug abuse and other problems requiring her to take medication and leaving her unable to work or maintain relationships.

The church has paid compensation to abuse victims, but the amounts have been much less than that sought in this case.

In the past five years, the Catholic Church has paid amounts ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 in about half a dozen other cases of sexual abuse.

Christchurch's St John of God Order paid $70,000 to $170,000 to 12 men abused as boys at former residential school Marylands.

Further settlements are pending, awaiting criminal prosecutions still to come before the courts.

In the United States the Catholic Church has been forced to pay out in multi-million dollar lawsuits by sexual abuse victims - leading churches to file for bankruptcy in some cities.

Catholic Communications spokeswoman Lindsay Freer said it would not be appropriate for the church to comment on the case about to be heard.