The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse has been a sobering event for many churches and other groups, not least the Anglican Church of Australia. While there were a number of quite harrowing case studies, the most attention was drawn to Case Study 42, looking at past events in the Diocese of Newcastle. While much has been made of past failings there has also been a clear and significant positive response by recent Diocesan leadership and retired bishop Greg Thompson has been particularly been praised for his work in this area, not least on these pages.
What has happened since the Commission finished it’s work and reported?
It is clear that the diocese has begun a robust program of improving standards. All those working with children and young people are required to complete Safe Ministry Training every three years. davidould.net understands that the requirement to complete this training have been extended beyond only those who work with children to, effectively, all those in any ministry or any office – a move which is to be commended. As its website states, “The Diocese of Newcastle is committed to Facing the Past and Shaping a Healthy Future.”
The report itself makes for sobering reading. We reported at the time on key points from the testimony and aftermath, including the resignation of Archbishop Roger Herft, a former bishop in the diocese.
Perhaps the most striking revelation of the Case Study was the disclosure of a system of “yellow envelopes” (p29 of the report):
Under the yellow envelope system, records of complaints before CASM [the body that was previously known as the “Diocesan Monitoring Committee to Consider Issues of Sexual Harassment”] were placed in separate sealed yellow envelopes, which were stored in a locked cabinet in the diocesan offices. Access to the records was restricted to the bishop, the commissary (who was Dean Lawrence) or the bishop’s representative, and the chair of CASM.
In 2009 there appear to have been 36 envelopes detailing allegations between 1950 and early 2004, but the report is not clear on how many of these related to current clergy or lay members rather than long-historical events were the alleged perpetrators were now dead. However it is highly likely that there were a number of contemporaneous allegations given that the report relates that, “from October 2001 to late 2004, CASM received approximately 30 complaints involving child sexual abuse” (p.28) and that, “Bishop Herft was put on notice of at least 24 matters relating to alleged child sexual abuse” (i.e. between 1993 and 2005) (p.29) but only notified the police 3 times.
It is difficult to know quite how these matters have been handled. The entire section headed “Awareness and management of child sexual abuse allegations” (pp. 32-36) is currently redacted, presumably in the light of matters now before the courts. What we do know is that shortly after current bishop Peter Stuart began his role as administrator of the diocese (following Bishop Farran’s retirement in 2013) he was made aware of the yellow envelopes and reported their existence to the police (p. 82, 278). The Commission notes that
We find that Assistant Bishop Stuart, Mr Michael Elliott and Mr Cleary acted appropriately in response to Mr Allen’s disclosures in early 2013, including by referring the matters to the police. (p. 278)
Diocesan leadership have also confirmed to davidould.net that the Royal Commission passed on all the contents of the yellow envelopes to the police. The report goes on to outline the work Bishop Stuart carried out in implementing a “Safe Ministry Policy” (i.e. a framework within which those accused of misconduct may continue to take an appropriate and safe part in church life) (p. 85-86).
Are things moving forward? The report states,
We consider that a major shift in understanding and awareness must occur in the Diocese if it is to improve its response to child sexual abuse going forward. The diocesan community as a whole must take responsibility for this problem. In particular, there is a role for further education on the reasons why survivors of abuse may not disclose their abuse immediately or at all and the feelings of shame and powerlessness associated with being a survivor.
There is still an attitude in some segments of the Diocese that survivors should just ‘move on’. Until that attitude evolves, very little may change in this institution.
It does appear that work is now happening to ingrain this “major shift” into the Diocese’s culture, not least in the widespread implementation of Safe Ministry Training. Nevertheless the ongoing challenges are enormous. The report summarises them in conclusion (p. 320):
We also identified a number of systemic issues which are both historical and current and apply more broadly than to the diocesan hierarchy alone. As evident from the backlash among an element of Church members towards Bishop Farran and Bishop Thompson, the Diocese is an institution where some lay members hold significant influence.
These historical and contemporary systemic issues are as follows:
- a minimising of the nature and impact of the offending
- a reluctance among some clergy to implement risk management strategies for accused or convicted clergy where those clergy shared longstanding professional or personal relationships
- a focus on protecting the reputation of the Church and of indiv dual members of the Church, particularly those in positions of power and influence
- a misrepresentation of abusive and predatory sexua relationships as consensual homosexual relationships.
A cumulative effect of each of these systemic issues was that a group of perpetrators was allowed to operate within the Diocese for at least 30 years.
Here at davidould.net we’re hopeful that the changes now being implemented mean that a very different concluding sentence would be written in the future.