Moving Forward from the Royal Commission

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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. 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 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 we’re hopeful that the changes now being implemented mean that a very different concluding sentence would be written in the future.

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  1. Robert Bruce

    Thanks David, for raising these very important issues.

    As you are not in the diocese, you would not be aware of what is going on here now but many of us who are here are deeply troubled by the current situation. There is very little if any tangible evidence of change and the current diocesan leadership seems to be doing nothing that gives confidence of meaningful change anytime soon, if ever.

    Most disturbingly, there seems a real possibility that paedophile activities are continuing in the diocese just as they have for years. It is well known that paedophiles do not give up their disgusting practices unless forced to do so. The perpetrators named in the Royal Commissioner’s report are mostly still around and many of them are still involved in diocesan activities, albeit some of them as prominent laymen now rather than as priests. Their previous supporters are still around too, many of them in parish ministry. It seems very likely that the paedophiles are continuing to use their diocesan contacts to procure little victims for their nefarious activities and that, consequently, little boys’ bodies and minds are still being ravaged on a regular basis.

    The new diocesan leadership must be held responsible for the present situation. Their current stance seems to be to look the other way (just as Roger Herft did before) and to murmur something about “moving on”, but not to do anything else. As wrong as Roger Herft obviously was, he might have had some confusion about things because the problems were not so evident then (although that does not justify his lack of action). There are no such excuses for the current diocesan leadership. It is just not good enough for them to think or pretend that the Royal Commission has fixed everything. The Royal Commissioner was not empowered to take action himself; his role was to point out what actions should be taken by those in authority. In the case of our diocese, that means the new diocesan leadership of three bishops. They must know that they are responsible, jointly and severally, for doing whatever it takes to stop child abuse in the diocese, and that there are now criminal law sanctions for not doing so. In particular, the bishop who heads the diocese now must know who the perpetrators are, because he has been around the diocese since 2009. He must also know which of his clergy and laymen prominent in diocesan affairs are supporters of the paedophiles, and thus of their practices.

    The victims are left without hope and the church’s reputation as an institution that upholds justice is left in tatters. How can any member of our diocese take the Gospel to the unchurched around us when their response is likely to be that the church in this part of the world is just a nest of paedophiles?

    It beggars belief that things can go on just as have for years and those responsible for stopping them, the three diocesan bishops, have done nothing except pretend that everything is rosy in the diocesan garden now. How can they possibly justify their behaviour, and what can be done to make sure things really do change?


    1. Ian Copland

      Thanks David Ould and Robert Bruce. I also Minister in the Diocese of Newcastle. Because of my optimistic persuasion and faith I would like to think that Bishop Peter and his leadership have thoroughly cleaned up the long standing Paetophile ring and that their are no skeletons left in the cubboard. However my realistic mind still has some concerns:-
      1. History and reality tells me that very few if any Paetophiles ever reform. They only retreat further into the dark world and find more devious ways to exploit the young. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us “the heart of man is desperately wicked, who can know it”.
      2. The secular press will pick upon the smallest whiff of ongoing church scandal to discredit any possibility of us having any future positive witness.
      3. Without deep, thourough and genuine repentance any positive gospel witnesscannot have legs. Bishop Peter rightly wants us all to move on but the little secretive envelopes and some who the Royal Comission have named are still hanging around.
      I sincerely hope my optimistic side prevails, maybe I like many believers are too naive?
      Cheers, Ian

  2. David Freeman

    If there are alleged ongoing issues then the Clergy Person should be immediately stood down (on full pay as they are innocent until proven guilty).
    There is no room in any denomination for alleged Sexual abuse or paedophilia.
    As a Clergy Person I deplore any abuse at any level by Clergy or Lay.
    If there are people in the Congregation who have been accused then they MUST NOT under any circumstances be allowed to continue in the Church (any denomination) until totally cleared. Churches need to cooperate with each other.
    The real worry is paedophilia is unstoppable- where will they target next? Churches have to stop being so trusting.

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