The Largest Award in Western Australian History

Historical Child Sexual Abuse Lawrence v Christian Bros [2020] WADC 27

In February of this year, Chief Justice Herron of the District Court of Western Australia ordered that catholic religious organisation, Christian Brothers, pay $1,329,500.00 in damages to Mr. John Thomas Lawrence. The case concerns systemic and traumatic child sexual abuse against Mr. Lawrence which took place between 1952 and 1960 while Mr Lawrence was in their care. The award is the largest personal injury compensation award in Western Australia History.

The Christian Brothers admitted they as an institution were at fault for the incidents however disputed the amount that Mr Lawrence was claiming.

The case is a significant decision in the context of compensation claims across Australia, and this article will be the first in a series relating to key aspects of the judgment.


By way of background, Mr. John Lawrence was eight years of age in 1952 when, together with other young boys of a similar age, he was transported by ship from England to Western Australia as a child migrant. Upon his arrival at Fremantle he was placed in the care of Christian Brothersfrom 1952 to 1960. During this period he lived primarily at St Vincent’s Orphanage Clontarf (‘Clontarf’) in Fremantlesave for one year at Castledare Junior Orphanage (‘Clontarf’) when he was aged 9.

During Mr Lawrence’s time as a resident as a student of the Colleges, he was repeatedly subject to various forms of sexual abuse, including violent examples of anal rape, by the Brothers and by others including a teacher. Mr Lawrence was, according to Herron CJ, “also subjected to associated physical abuse, cruelty, intimidation, humiliation, degradation and neglect”. This additional physical abuse included one of the Brothers taking him into an office, stripping him naked from the waist down and beating him across his bare backside with a cane while questioning his sexual activities.

The Statute of Limitations

Prior to the Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013), Claimants such as Mr. John Lawrence were only able to make a claim within 3 years of the incident giving rise to the injury occurring. For minors under the age of 18, they were allowed until the age of 21 to make a claim. Following this date, Claimants were statute-barred and unable to make a claim.

One of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission was to remove the statutory limitation period and allow for Claimants to bring a claim for child sexual abuse at any time. While all of the State and Territory governments have now implemented this recommendation, many of the States – including Western Australia and Queensland – have only lifted the limitation date in relation to child “sexual abuse”. That is to say, the 3 year limitation period for other causes of injury – including physical or emotional abuse – remain in force and claimants are statute barred from bringing any such claims outside of this period.

The Definition of ‘child sexual abuse’

Interestingly, as part of their defence, the Christian Brothers relied upon this recent legislation which only allowed for damages to be awarded for child sexual abuse and not for any other type of abuse. They pled that the additional physical and emotional abuse suffered by Mr Lawrence while under their care was unrelated to the sexual abuse. Therefore, the amount of damages awarded to Mr. Lawrence ought to be reduced accordingly.

Significantly, the Chief Justice dismissed this argument, preferring to take a broad view of the definition of ‘sexual abuse’. This is best articulated at paragraph 96 of the judgment (emphasis added):

In this case, as I shall explain, the evidence demonstrates that the sexual abuse of Mr Lawrence was bound up with physical and emotional abuse in the context of a pervasive atmosphere created by the Christian Brothers of violence, fear and terror…. that maltreatment and any consequent harm are so entwined with the child sexual abuse and the harm which was caused by that abuse, that the causes and the harm cannot be disentangled.”

What does this mean?

This is a significant decision for Queensland as, like in Western Australia, the limitation period in our state has been removed only in relation to ‘sexual abuse’ to a child. This case, among other things, demonstrates that courts may be minded to allow for historical physical/emotional abuse in circumstances where it is “bound up” or “so entwined with” a culture of child sexual abuse. 

Written by: Luke Borgert

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