THE Catholic Church has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to defend priests and brothers who have already been tried and convicted of serious sexual assaults against children in their care.
A Fairfax Media investigation has revealed that at least two Catholic orders have continued to fund the legal defences of some of their religious members as they went to trial for the second, third and even fourth time for the sexual abuse of children.
This includes the funding of multiple appeals, hiring top barristers who charge thousands of dollars a day, and hiring private investigators.
In some cases the result has been that criminal prosecutions and the victims of abuse are dragged through the courts for many years.
''It is extremely offensive and hurtful to victims that Catholic Church orders are continuing to fund the defences of priests and brothers after they have been convicted,'' said Nicky Davis from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
''We can see what's going on and we can see that it's obscene.''
The head of professional standards at one of Australia's largest Catholic orders, Christian Brothers, confirmed that the order had continued to fund the defence of two of its members - Brother Robert Charles Best and Brother Edward Vernon Dowlan - after they had been convicted of sexually abusing children at Catholic schools in Victoria.
Best has had at least five court battles funded by the Christian Brothers dating back to 1996, including three trials on multiple counts of indecent assault and buggery, and at least two Victorian Supreme Court appeals.
At least one of these appeals was successful.
In August 2011 Best was jailed for a maximum of 14 years and nine months, but is currently appealing his conviction again in the Victorian Supreme Court.
According to the victim support group Broken Rites, by the late 1990s the Christian Brothers had already spent about $400,000 in defending Dowlan and Best.
Costs reportedly included ''56 full days in court, two Queen's counsel barristers, a team of solicitors, legal office staff, private investigators, psychiatrists, psychologists and other paid experts who gave character evidence on behalf of the offenders''.
The order's executive officer for professional standards, Brother Brian Brandon, confirmed that the order had funded Best and Dowlan's defences, and said that the order had a broad policy of funding the defences of brothers charged in relation to child sex abuse.
When it was put to him that it was not appropriate for the order to continue funding its members' legal defences after they had been convicted, he said: ''Well, that's one perspective.''
''Either you, the taxpayer, are providing the funding via Legal Aid or the congregation is helping you out by providing the funding,'' he said.
''We think it is better for the congregation to provide the funding, if a brother has no independent means, than for you, the public, to pay through Legal Aid.''
The Provincial of the smaller, Sydney-based Marist Fathers order, Father Paul Cooney, confirmed that his order had also funded the legal defence of two priests - Roger Michael Bellemore and Gregory Laurence Ferguson - after they had been convicted of sexually abusing children at church-run boarding schools in Burnie, Tasmania.
After Bellemore was convicted at his first trial in 2006, the order apologised ''for any harm suffered by the former students''.
His lawyers then immediately lodged an appeal and won. In 2008 Bellemore was convicted again at his third trial.
Father Cooney said that the order had believed it was ensuring that its members were given a competent defence, but it had subsequently changed its policy regarding convicted members.
''If, now, a member was found guilty after the first case, we would say 'no more money will be forthcoming from the church'.''
Fairfax Media understands that Catholic Church funding for the legal defence of priests and brothers who have already been convicted, comes from a number of sources, including the revenue of the individual orders. In some cases this may include the local church collection box, as well as property investments.
It is understood that in some cases the money may come from the church's insurance company, Catholic Church's Insurance Limited.