Bishop apologises to victims of priest

NEWCASTLE Anglican Bishop Brian Farran has issued an extraordinary public apology to the women victims of a former Cooks Hill priest, saying it was wrong to keep silent about serious misconduct findings against the priest and expressing regret for a "less than full statement" this week.

"I've made a mistake and I sincerely apologise to the women for the stress I've caused," Bishop Farran, pictured, said of his decision not to make public findings of sexual misconduct and misleading an investigation against former Cooks Hill priest Garry Dodd, despite requests for him to do so, including from Father Dodd's women victims.

The bishop said he "deeply regretted" that the failure to make public the Professional Standards Board findings on July 30, coupled with subsequent media appearances by Father Dodd on radio and in the Newcastle Herald, "actually exacerbated" the stress caused to the women victims.

A diocese statement said the matters were "breaches of the Diocesan code of conduct including sexualised behaviours, boundary breaching and sexual harassment involving adult females, as well as attempting to mislead the investigation into the matter".

The "serious misconduct" was not found to have been of a criminal nature.

The Herald was unaware of the findings when Father Dodd, now with the Seafarers Mission, appeared in a report early this week as an advocate for "starving" coal ship crews.

Bishop Farran also regretted telling the Herald on Wednesday the decision "was made public to the extent that the complainants wanted to make it public", before confirmation on Thursday that the women had asked him to issue a press release in early August.

"I certainly wasn't trying to deliberately mislead," the bishop said.

"It was a less than full statement. I was trying to protect the women because of what had happened with the Gumbley matter."

A meeting with parishioners at Terrigal in May after the then parish priest John Gumbley was defrocked for sexual relationships, including with a parishioner, ended with parishioners strongly supporting the priest and criticising the church proceedings.

Bishop Farran said he was "deeply influenced by what happened at Terrigal" when Father Dodd's matter was heard on July 30.

Father Dodd's victims' written requests to make the findings public came after another "disastrous" meeting, this time with a restricted number of Cooks Hill parishioners at which the diocese had planned to outline the findings and restore the women's reputations.

The meeting ended with parishioners openly supporting Father Dodd and challenging the diocese's handling of the matter.

In his findings on July 30 retired NSW magistrate and Newcastle Professional Standards Board president Col Elliott praised the women's courage in complaining about the priest's sexual misconduct and said they "must have our admiration and commendation".

"Such attitude on their part can change attitudes and conduct, the benefits of which cannot be overestimated," Mr Elliott said.

Father Dodd's "abuse of his position of trust in the church community must be discouraged and the signal sent to those who might be like-minded that such conduct brings himself and the church into disrepute", he said.

The priest "and his supporters" had to be given "adequate opportunity" to inform the Cooks Hill parish about "the truth of the detail in the allegations", Mr Elliott said.

Bishop Farran said he would establish protocols making it mandatory for the Professional Standards Board to make a public statement after future proceedings.

The diocese had commissioned Sydney University's Professor Patrick Parkinson to independently review the diocese's professional standards processes.

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