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Royal Commission criticises diocese and two former bishops over child safeguarding failures

Posted on: December 7, 2017 3:08 PM
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An official inquiry looking at institutional response to child sex abuse in Australia has heavily criticised the Diocese of Newcastle and two former bishops for their “do nothing approach”. The Royal Commission, an official statutory inquiry, found that by failing to act, the former Bishop of Newcastle Alfred Holland enabled the continued abuse of children by two priests: Peter Rushton and James Brown; and it said that failings by his successor, Bishop Roger Herft, of “weak and ineffectual” leadership which “showed no regard for the need to protect children.”

The findings come in a redacted version of their report, which was published today. An unredacted version will be published at a later date, when it can’t “prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings,” the Commission said. The report is the culmination of public hearings held by the Commission in August and November The “responses of the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse” was one of the case-studies undertaken by the Commission as part of its wider work.

Of the two perpetrators who were able to continue their abuse because of the lack of action by Bishop Holland, Peter Rushton died in 2007 and was never charged with any child sexual abuse offences, but the diocese “acknowledges that he was a child sex offender,” the Commission said. James Brown pleaded guilty to 27 charges of child sexual abuse relating to 19 male victims and was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in jail in 2011.

The Commission found that alleged perpetrators were allowed to move to other dioceses with no warning about the allegations. “Bishop Herft’s inaction with respect to Father Rushton contributed to the systematic failure of the diocese to make perpetrators accountable for their conduct,” the Commission said. “Compassion and pastoral care was often not shown to survivors under the leadership of these two bishops.

“However, in exposing the allegations, later Newcastle Bishops Brian Farran and Gregory Thompson, took appropriate responses against alleged perpetrators and provided survivors with pastoral care,” the report says, before adding: “They faced a considerable backlash over their actions.”

The Deputy Diocesan Chancellor, Paul Rosser QC, was also criticised in the report. He had “accepted instructions to appear for Father Parker at the criminal prosecution for offences” against a survivor, identified only as CKA, and his brother. “Despite Mr Rosser QC’s submission to the contrary, the Commissioners found there was clear conflict of interest between his duty to the diocese and his duty to his client, Father Parker. . .

“In his capacity as deputy chancellor, Mr Rosser was involved in sending a message to CKA that the diocese would help him. In his capacity as Father Parker’s legal representative, he was involved in undermining CKA’s allegations.”

There was a further conflict of interest in that Parker’s solicitor, Keith Allen, was a member of diocesan council and a trustee for the diocese. The report says that Mr Allen “did not consider” the appropriateness of acting for Parker in a criminal prosecution “given the various governance roles he held in the diocese at the time.”

It also criticises Allen’s behaviour. One child victim had been sexually assaulted by a priest, Stephen Hatley Gray, on a table next to some lamingtons – an Australian cake. Parker then took lamingtons with him at meetings with the diocesan registrar at which the case was discussed, “because he thought it would be ‘amusing’”. The report says.

In evidence to the Commission, Mr Allen said that taking lamingtons was “part of a joke with the then Registrar”.

“He eventually conceded that this was in the context where he was aware that a child had been sexually assaulted next to lamingtons on a table,” the report says. “He accepted that his humour was ‘really inappropriate’. We go further than this. His humour was disturbing and demonstrated a callous disregard for the child victim and a complete lack of insight into the gravity of child sexual assault.”

The damning 400-page report details “the cumulative effect of a number of systemic issues allowed a group of perpetrators to operate within the diocese for at least 30 years.” Failings include the falsification of documents and a “focus on protecting the reputation of the Church and its powerful and influential members.”

The Commission said: “Before 2007 those who reported allegations of child sexual abuse to senior clergy were treated as if they had fabricated the allegations and were sometimes threatened with legal action. Father Peter Rushton often threatened alleged victims or their families with legal action after hearing allegations of child sexual abuse made against him.

“There was a lack of turnover of positions of governance leading to entrenched positions, conflicts of interest and a narrowed pool of expertise. There was a permissive and timid leadership by successive bishops.

“The report found that allegations of child sexual abuse were not consistently or regularly reported to police and record keeping about complaints was inadequate. There was also a practise of minimising the nature and impact of the offending and an over-reliance on the perceived honesty of alleged perpetrators when confronted with allegations.”

Responding to the report, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, the Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier, said that “Anglicans, like other Australians, were shocked and dismayed as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse uncovered events in the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.

“We accept the Royal Commission’s findings about our failures, institutional, systemic and personal. We are grateful for its work in identifying weaknesses and areas for improvement.”

He continued: “I apologise again on behalf of the Anglican Church to survivors, their families, and other people affected by the criminal offences and our failure to react properly.

“The Anglican Church of Australia has taken strong actions to improve our protocols, procedures, checks, and responses to complaints, many of these in response to Royal Commission recommendations. We continue to strive to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, and especially for children.”

Last December, Bishop Herft announced that he was taking early retirement from his post as Archbishop of Perth. The Bishop of Gippsland, Kay Goldsworthy, has been elected to succeed him, becoming the first woman elected in Australia to the role of Archbishop.

Last month, Bishop Peter Stuart was elected Bishop of Newcastle. Currently an assistant bishop in the diocese, he told the Newcastle Herald that he had been “deeply moved by the commitment of clergy and laity to properly face the past.”

He said: “There has been a consistent resolve throughout the year to listen, learn and change.”

The Royal Commission in Australia is one of a number of inquiries taking place around the world looking at how Churches and other institutions have responded to child sexual abuse. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in England and Wales will hold public hearings as part of its investigation of “The Anglican Church” – the Church of England and the Church in Wales – next March.

The Anglican Communion has established a Safe Church Commission to investigate ways of ensuring a consistent and strong approach to safeguarding children through the Anglican provinces across the globe.

  • You can download the full report by the Royal Commission here (pdf).