Priest's future in doubt

RETIRED Newcastle Anglican Dean Graeme Lawrence says his future as a priest is in Bishop Brian Farran’s hands after losing an appeal following sexual misconduct allegations.

‘‘The ball is in his court now,’’ Father Lawrence said yesterday after a NSW Supreme Court judge dismissed his appeal to quash professional standards board findings against him.

The decision means the bishop can act on a board determination to strip Father Lawrence of Holy Orders and remove him from the priesthood. He is considering an appeal.

Bishop Farran declined to comment ‘‘until the appeal period is closed’’, when asked if he would act on the board’s decision.

Justice John Sackar backed the diocese’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against Father Lawrence and Cardiff priest Graeme Sturt at hearings in December 2010.

He rejected that they had been subjected to ‘‘illegitimate, unfair, harsh and oppressive procedures’’, but acknowledged that the ‘‘unseemly’’ allegations raised at the public hearings were ‘‘distressing ... and have no doubt had a potentially adverse impact on their reputations’’.

The priests were criticised for denying allegations, including a group sex incident at a Riverina clergy conference in 1984, but refusing to defend them at the hearings.

‘‘They adopted a considered and deliberate forensic strategy,’’ Justice Sackar said.

‘‘They were entitled to take that course but they should, in my opinion and in the interests of justice, abide by its consequences.’’

He rejected the diocese’s arguments that the priests could not take their case to the Supreme Court because the special relationship between priests and church was not that of employer/employee.

He also rejected the priests’ arguments that they had been denied procedural fairness in hearings before a board headed by retired NSW magistrate Col Elliott.

There was a ‘‘clear public interest that where such allegations of this sort are made, even after a significant lapse of time, the church be permitted to investigate those complaints especially when made in relation to its clergy’’.

Justice Sackar said there was ‘‘no doubt that these events have arguably impacted upon the reputation of the Anglican Church of Australia’’.

‘‘Although the issues involve allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the (priests) and other males, this case is not, nor could it be, about the church and the whole issue of homosexuality, whether concerning its clergy or its parishioners,’’ he said.

‘‘That issue, which it must be acknowledged is likely to produce strong views either way, is far removed from the purview of these proceedings.’’

In a statement after the decision, Bishop Farran said the court found the diocese had ‘‘acted appropriately when dealing with sexual misconduct accusations involving two members of the Anglican clergy’’.

It was a ‘‘welcome result’’ that vindicated the board and the ‘‘transparent process’’ it had taken.

Father Sturt is also considering an appeal.

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