A Question of Resignation for Archbishop Roger Herft

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This week has been an awful one for Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft. On Monday and Tuesday he faced sustained questioning at the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse about his leadership of the Diocese of Newcastle at a time when many allegations were made that clergy and lay leaders had sexually abused children.

The Newcastle Herald’s reporting (Day 10 Monday, Day 11 Tuesday) is as good as anyone’s. Here are their video reports at the end of the day:

The big question that is being asked around Anglican circles now (and indeed was asked by one of the counsel at the Commission but ruled out of order by the judge) is whether Herft should now resign. At first sight the case for a resignation may appear strong on a number of grounds.

Herft’s testimony was full of lapses of memory. I think it is fair to say that much of his answering was in the form of “I don’t remember” and he only appeared to agree with or recall things when there was third party evidence to confirm it. So stark did this appear that the Newcastle Herald ran this front page on the Tuesday morning:

CrEa2fpVIAECyBUIn particular, Herft claimed not to be able to recall meetings in which specific allegations had been made. It’s one thing, his critics will argue, to not remember the events of a meeting 10 year ago about ordering stationery, but surely one will remember when shocking allegations about child abuse are made?

In addition the evidence seems to suggest that Herft did not deal appropriately with allegations when made, in one instance receiving a written complaint but not passing it on to the police. It’s been pointed out to me that not reporting a criminal offence may itself be a crime, according to the NSW Crimes Act 1900.

Sect 316 (1) If a person has committed a serious indictable offence and another person who knows or believes that the offence has been committed and that he or she has information which might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender for it fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of a member of the Police Force or other appropriate authority, that other person is liable to imprisonment for 2 years.

That’s not to say that a charge will be brought, I wonder if it would be in the public interest, but the repeated failure to act (and particularly since Herft was well aware of the existence of the “yellow paper envelope file” containing details of a large number of allegations of sexual abuse) places him in a difficult position.

Further, there were suggestions that some responses by Herft to complainants about allegations made were “legalistic”.

Hence the question of resignation. On the other hand one might argue that these events were in the past and in a previous role and nothing can be gained by a resignation now. To some extent that’s perhaps true. It’s also clear that Herft has undergone a learning and grieving process through this,

Herft said he was “much more careful about attributing such a high level of privilege and grace to human beings, knowing my own frailties, but also acknowledging that people with high levels of spirituality need also to be attentive to the greater sins that are around us. So I’ve come to a much more realistic view, I think, of the priesthood and about those who serve in the priesthood.”

Herft has told the royal commission that Graeme Lawrence’s abuse had “shocked me deeply and it has contributed significantly to the way I acknowledge and respond to things”.

At the end of his testimony he asked to make a brief statement where he acknowledged and apologised for “letting down the diocese”.

Senior Anglican figures that I’ve been in contact with over the past few weeks speak consistently of Herft as an honourable man and “one of the good guys”. He was, by all accounts, generally well-liked when Bishop in Newcastle. While it is clear that he has made some serious mistakes there is also a degree of sympathy; his failings were errors of judgement rather than malicious actions.

So should Herft resign? I think he will have to. What persuades me is the following:

Then Governor General of Australia, Peter Hollingworth, resigned from that position in 2003 in large part because it became clear that previously as Archbishop of Brisbane he had failed to properly deal with allegations of sexual abuse and also allowed a known paedophile to continue to function as a priest. Again, there was no suggestion of malice on the part of Hollingworth but that simply, by his own admission, he was not “up to” the job.

By any reckoning the failings of Herft, by his own testimony at the Commission, were of a much greater number and impact than those of Hollingworth. If Hollingworth had to go, it’s hard to argue that Herft should not, however sorry we feel for him.

Does this mean there is no place for grace? Of course not! By Herft’s own words he is clearly contrite about what happened. Repentance is the pathway to genuine forgiveness.

Some resignations are matters only for shame, but some are actions of men of honour who make no pretence about what has happened and seek only to acknowledge accountability. I would imagine that an early resignation by Herft, driven by a recognition that his position was untenable, and a personal concern that he been seen to take responsibility for his failings would be met with a large degree of support.

It would be a sad end to his service (and lead to the election of a far more theologically liberal replacement in Perth), but I can’t see how it’s not the right thing to do. We, the Anglican Church of Australia, need to take our failings in this area very seriously and if Herft is the man of honour that so many people tell me that he is then he will surely lead by example. I, for one, would commend him for it.

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  1. Bruce Lyon

    Well said, good line of argument, mixed with good theological reflection. I agree.

  2. somewhere in cyberspace

    David, I’d appreciate some consideration of Herft’s duty under Faithfulness of Service (or any of its precedents) for keeping records of meetings. The Royal Commission did not dive heavily into that arena. Hasn’t there been a failing simply for want of keeping records?

    1. David Ould

      It’s a good question. As I understand it, Faithfulness in Service wasn’t in place at that time but one could argue that the need for proper record keeping was still a given.
      That would be an internal matter for the Anglican Church of Australia. My gut is that Herft will be out of his current role long before any internal process would address those issues, but they do perhaps add to the pressure upon him.

  3. James Chik

    I think there needs to be a distinction and clarification between Hollingworth’s resignation and the need for Herft to resign. Both failed in their part to look after God’s flock as required of them. The failure is not trivial, and the damage and hurt significant. But Hollingworth was in high (public) office as GG, with a question mark on his appointment because he was clergy and the subsequent cry to crucify him by the public in the end. Could someone who failed so badly to protect those in his care (even indirectly) be allowed to hold the highest office in the land? Herft on the other hand is not in public office like Hollingworth so we should be careful to not entreat him to the same public cry to crucify. He should resign simply because (like Hollingworth) he failed to protect God’s flock in his care, and not because the public would have demanded it. (I know you’re not implying that. But I think the distinction should be made.)

  4. Ron Johnson

    I don’t think we should be quick to judge issues in the past with the rules we have that are binding on us today.

    We need to acknowledge that in the past clergy were between a rock and a hard place more-so then than now.
    Grace, mercy, justice and love combined with the restoration of the penitent needed the wisdom of Solomon.

    Although we are not Roman Catholics, there was also a belief (that was never refuted) in the sanctity of the “confessional”.
    Even in Sydney, it was not until Archbishop Harry Goodhew’s time that we had a standards of behaviour document that we could refer to.
    I thought it was rather quaint at the time, because I naively thought that we had that document already in the form of the Bible!
    And for some strange reason, I thought that clergy were the most reliable and trustworthy people on earth!

    And honestly – do we think we are living either in Hollywood where conversations from fifty years ago can be replayed with flashbacks in detail on the screen, or in novels in the fiction section of a bookstore where the author ties up all the threads?

    How many of us can remember conversations within our family where we don’t remember a conversation ever taking place, or we disagree on the contents of the conversation from even six months ago?
    Of course that comes into the frame as well doesn’t it? Memory!
    Ageing brings with it particular problems in this area doesn’t it?

    I hate trial by media – especially the headline above in the Newcastle Herald.
    I think Roger Herft should be treated with the dignity and respect he deserves, a man who has given his life to serving God and His people.
    Unless he has done something criminal or immoral he deserves better than this.

  5. Anon Perth

    “It would be a sad end to his service (and lead to the election of a far more theologically liberal replacement in Perth), but I can’t see how it’s not the right thing to do.”

    I agree, but let’s be very honest – the council to elect the next Archbishop has been stacked by the liberals. It’s a given that the next AB will be liberal – it’s just a question of if the person will be a woman or a man in a same sex relationship.

    If there are no allegations that he has mis-handled matters of a similar nature here in Perth, I think he should stay on.

    1. Also Anon in Perth

      Indeed. Archbishop Roger’s veto was the only thing standing between Perth Diocese and recognition of same-sex-relationships at Synod 2 years ago. His fall would very likely be seen as a repudiation of his position (quite ironic, in the circumstances of Newcastle, I’m sure you’d all agree).

      1. somewhere in cyberspace

        Anon, can you kindly bring me up-to-date on Perth Diocesan position on resurrection. I have a memory that Perth has in the past had clergy who do not firmly support physical bodily resurrection of Christ (which some have said is a contra to the Anglican Articles of Faith). Has Herft ever held such a position? (I Googled and found Herft’s most recent Easter address – it reads just as I’d expect of any Archbishop Easter address).

        David Ould: please delete this immediately if it is breaking too far from the thread of your post or otherwise breaking page rules.

  6. Somewhere in cyberspace

    I think there is a very simple administrative distinction that Herft neglected to make.

    As I read the slim account of his meeting with Lawrence – slim because it is full of ‘I can not recall’ responses – Herft convened a meeting that had a disciplinary character (addressing allegation). While it was disciplinary in character, Herft allowed the meeting to stray in character towards a pastoral meeting.

    The church needs to make a clearcut distinction in the character of its meetings. The meetings need to have a single character. Hold a disciplinary discussion first, then conclude the meeting before starting any other meeting of a another character. By nature the disciplinary meeting may be made distinct by inclusion of additional elements – such as support persons.

  7. Anon III

    David, thank you for your remarks at the top of this thread titled “A Question of Resignation”. I am disappointed that the issue has moved to considerations of succession, liberal or otherwise, prompted by what was merely a parenthetical comment in your post. The central issue is the capacity of the man to do his job effectively.
    I reject the view that memories of significant events fade. Yes, there are many insignificant things that I do not recall from yesterday, let alone 20 years ago, and yet there are other things that I remember many – perhaps most – details about. Those are the things that had a significant impact on me or my world view, or had some other shock attached to them. I remember the newspaper billboard announcing the death of JFK that I saw over 50 years ago. I remember where I was and who I was with on 11 September 2001, when the Twin Towers went down. These are imprinted in my memory because they were shocking. David, you report that Lawrence’s abuse “shocked [Herft] deeply”, and I hope that that is true. If it is, then I cannot accept that the level of memory failure that he claimed at the Royal Commission is truthful testimony.
    You write that “He was, by all accounts, generally well-liked when Bishop in Newcastle.” The contrary accounts cannot have reached you. I am aware of several clergy who left the Diocese of Newcastle as a result of his treatment of them, and of others whose mistreatment by him was savage and yet they were unable to leave. One such priest moved to a Victorian parish. When he died, his bishop delivered a funeral eulogy that made unmistakable reference to the dreadful treatment that he had received from Herft in Newcastle.
    A review of the Perth Episcopate was conducted in 2009, and in his October 2009 Pastoral Advisory Herft wrote that there is “a dissonance between how the key lay leadership view the Episcopal Team and how the clergy find the Episcopate”. I would probably have read that and moved on, but an Archdeacon called it to my attention. He was rallying the clergy to apply pressure to Herft in the hope of driving change in his treatment of clergy. The shock that has caused me to recall Herft’s words was the action of the Archdeacon. When reviews lead Archbishops to write what Herft wrote, and Archdeacons do what that one did, one should become concerned about the Archbishop’s capacity to lead a Diocese.
    David, you write that “By Herft’s own words he is clearly contrite about what happened.” Yes, I have read those words too. One of my vivid memories is of hearing Anthony Foster, whose family has suffered dreadfully after his daughters were raped by Roman Catholic clergy, say on radio that when he raised these matters with now-Cardinal Pell, Pell showed a ‘psychopathic lack of empathy’. Those words shocked me (and so have stayed with me), so I did some reading about sociopaths and psychopaths and learnt that they fall into two groups: the violent, and the non-violent. They all lack empathy, and the non-violent ones are often in high office while the violent ones are often in prison. Both groups get where they get because they are unable to understand the cost to others of their behaviour. Being devoid of empathy can be a good thing. If I should need brain surgery then I would prefer that my surgeon acted coldly and calmly while inside my brain, devoid of empathy!
    A characteristic of sociopaths and psychopaths is an ability to use appropriate empathetic words while having no understanding of the emotions that they convey. (It is like my colourblind Dad who, when teaching me to drive, would correctly say ‘that traffic light is red’, or ‘that traffic light is green’, while having no understanding of the feelings that those colours can evoke.) When one reads what sociopaths and psychopaths write and one listens to what they say, one notices a dissonance between the words used and the other things that convey meaning – body language, behaviour, etc. There is something hollow about their words.
    Since hearing Anthony Foster’s account of his meeting with Pell, I have begun to read Episcopal (and other) pronouncements with new eyes, eyes that I would commend to all readers. Be aware of the dissonances!
    My family and I have suffered at Herft’s hands in Perth. The treatment that I received from a group of clergy was, on one occasion, horrendous. Herft was absolutely ineffectual in dealing with my complaint, despite the support that I gave him by suggesting creative ways forward, and the result was that I suffered much more. David, you write that “It’s also clear that Herft has undergone a learning and grieving process through this”. I have not seen the evidence of that.
    Is Herft “an honourable man and “one of the good guys” “? Not all think so. Some from Newcastle and Perth are watching these things with keen interest. Will he resign? Will he be charged (as you countenance)? Perhaps he will be like Al Capone who, it is reputed, could not be convicted for his despicable behaviour but who went down for tax evasion.
    David, I trust that I have stayed true to your original “Question of Resignation” and supplied useful and relevant information and perspectives. My personal pain from Herft is still raw, so I have reluctantly signed myself as “Anon III” (there being two previous Anons). I do so not to hide in the anonymity, but to protect my family and myself from further harm. I do not like doing so, and I recognise that Anons I and II, both in Perth, also need protection.

  8. dadangus

    Dear fans of Roger ( The Dodger)

    Do you ever think to ask a victim of abuse what they think? Of course not. That would require some real Christian consideration of the failure of the dodgy Roger to protect young people

    The rush to forgiveness means that none of you have experienced the impact of abuse . Some were so wounded that they died. By their own hand. But never mind Roger is a “good bloke” who only let down the diocese. All his “evidence ” was guided by his lawyers to avoid confessing to the crime of concealing a crime

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