AFTER three years of working with the victims of child sexual abuse – and after declaring his own history as a survivor – Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson is taking leave from his job to recover from the toll.
After finishing as the final witness before the Royal Commission’s marathon 16-day sitting on the Newcastle diocese, the bishop issued a statement confirming his decision. Having previously accused the late bishop Ian Shevill of sexual impropriety, the bishop stunned Wednesday’s hearing when he read from his statement to the commission, detailing his own history as a survivor.
Stopping regularly to compose himself, Bishop Thompson said he had grown up in a violent household at Muswellbrook and been sexually assaulted as a young teenager by two of the “occasional boarders” his parents took in to make ends meet.
At the same time as Shevill tried to seduce him, in 1976, Bishop Thompson said Shevill and another cleric, the canon Eric Barker, had taken him to the Tower Cinema in Newcastle to see an R-rated movie – the 1976 film Drum, in which the main character, an African-American man, Drum, “receives sexual advances from a white slave owner”.
Both men groped him in the cinema and later at Barker’s house the cleric had tried again to force himself on the then-19-year-old, saying: “Greg, if you want to get into ministry you have to have a relationship.” He was in no doubt that Barker meant a sexual relationship. After recounting this part of his statement, as requested by counsel assisting the commission, Naomi Sharp, the now-married bishop was taken through a long list of the diocese’s convicted and alleged offenders.
Bishop Thompson said the more he listened to the tales of other survivors of clerical sexual abuse, the more he felt he had to honest about his own situation. That was why he had decided to speak about his own experiences.
Reflecting on the “ostracisation and humiliation” that had been heaped on abuse survivors and their supporters, Bishop Thompson said: “I came to see what it might feel like to be a sexual abuse survivor who came forward to the diocese. If they could do this to the bishop, they could do it to anyone.”
He described the “networks of influence and power extending for decades” through the diocese as “a protection racket”.
Describing the state of the Anglican church’s response to clerical abuse, he said: “The house is burning.”
Bishop Thompson was applauded loudly from the gallery when he finished his evidence as the hearing’s final witness.
Afterwards, he issued a statement saying he was determined to restore people’s “confidence and trust in our church’s mission”.
The chairman of the Royal Commission, Justice Peter McClellan, concluded the hearing by saying the inquiry was under immense pressure to finish its work. The Newcastle diocese had been “an important case study for a number of reasons”. It had been “the longest individual case study we have undertaken” and was significant not only for the Anglican church but as a study in “how institutions may fail or succeed in responding to allegations of abuse”.
Thursday’s hearing, the 16th day of an inquiry that was carried over from August after its initial block of time was insufficient, began with the diocesan business manager since 2007, John Cleary, resuming in the witness stand. Mr Cleary parried questions from counsel for former bishop Roger Herft, and stood by his evidence of Wednesday regarding the 2012 disciplinary proceedings against the former dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence, and the other figures that a survivor, CKH, had accused of multiple sexual transgressions over some six years until 1984.
Mr Cleary, like his colleague, the director of professional standards, an employee of the diocese rather than a parishioner, said that at that time “we desperately needed a leader to stand up and support professional standards”.
He was adamant that a bloc within the church had been actively trying to weaken the professional standards ordinances and that those people were also more supportive of accused or guilty clerics than they were towards their victims.
Mr Cleary’s evidence also touched briefly on the way that legal fees had eaten into some “substantial” payments to abuse victims, including Phillip D’Ammond, who gave horrific evidence to the commission in August of his abuse at the hands of a serial paedophile, Jim Brown, who was defended by prominent diocese lay figure and church office-holder Paul Rosser.
Mr Cleary said half of Mr D’Ammond’s payment went on legal fees and the other half went on heroin: he’d been clean for four years but with a sudden pile of money and no financial advice he spent it all.
But it was Bishop Thompson’s evidence that proved the most emotional, as he talked about his “deep sense of betrayal” by those in the diocese who even now supported clergy rather than victims.
New steps to review policies
NEWCASTLE Bishop Greg Thompson quoted the 4th century theologian St Augustine in his Royal Commission evidence to describe some of the clerical power networks in his diocese as incurvatus in se or “life turned in on itself”.
But in a statement afterwards, the bishop invoked a very 21st century response – a review by professional services firm KPMG – to help ensure “health and transparency” in the operation of the church.
Bishop Thompson said the royal commission had been a watershed for survivors and their families, and for the church, which he said was committed to facing its past.
Declaring the royal commission to be “the basis for . . . decision-making” in the diocese, the bishop said he had commissioned a review of diocesan governance practices by KPMG “ethics and independence partner”, Mark Jones.
Citing “the lived trauma of survivors”, he said the diocese was working to appoint a former NSW police commander to undertake a review of its present policies on child protection, church discipline and redress for survivors.