Newcastle Anglicans had “do nothing” approach to abuse: Royal Commission

THE Anglican Diocese of Newcastle had a “do nothing” approach to child sexual abuse under bishops Alfred Holland and Roger Herft, meaning perpetrators were not called to account, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has found.

Bishop Roger Herft at the Newcastle Royal Commission hearing last year.

Bishop Roger Herft at the Newcastle Royal Commission hearing last year.

In a 320-page report with sections blacked out so as not to prejudice any related court cases, the commission said “the cumulative effect of a number of systemic issues” allowed a group of perpetrators to operate within the diocese for at least 30 years.

The report found that systemic issues included a focus on protecting the reputation of the church and its powerful and influential members. Abusive and predatory sexual relationships were misrepresented as consensual homosexual relationships.

Before 2007, those who reported child sexual abuse to the church were treated as though they had fabricated their allegations and were sometimes threatened with legal action. There was a permissive and timid leadership by successive bishops, allegations of child abuse were not regularly or consistently reported to the police and record- keeping – despite the diocese’s infamous system of “yellow envelopes” – was inadequate.

The commission described Bishop Holland’s time in Newcastle from 1978 to 1992 as a lost opportunity to rein in offenders, including Wallsend cleric Peter Rushton, who died in 2007 without being charged after decades as “a prolific child sex offender”.

In a similar vein, the commission said Bishop Herft’s response to allegations of child sexual abuse was weak and ineffectual, showing no regard for the need to protect children during his time in the diocese from 1993 to 2005.

The commission noted, though, that things improved under bishops Brian Farran and Gregory Thompson, who took appropriate responses against alleged offenders while providing survivors with proper pastoral care. Both men faced a backlash from parishioners for their actions, especially Bishop Thompson after he detailed his own experience of abuse to the Newcastle Herald in 2015.

The commission’s report follows hearings last year in Newcastle and Sydney. In describing the culture in the diocese the report lists 16 men as either having been convicted, charged or accused of being child sex offenders.

In a section on one of these individuals – Stephen Hatley Gray, convicted of sex with a 15-year-old boy in 1990 – the commission rejected the evidence of Bishop Holland and Bishop Richard Appleby that they did not know that Gray had sexually abused a boy.

The commission also accepted that Gray’s resignation letter was falsely dated to the day before his offence, which “protected the church’s reputation” by representing he had resigned before the offence had occurred.

On Rushton, the commission said Bishop Holland “failed to take any action to report or risk manage” the cleric once he knew of the allegations against him.

The commission also accepted that Bishop Appleby (then an assistant bishop) promised one informant he would “look into” his allegations of abuse against Father George Parker, but “in fact he took no further steps”.

 “When Bishop Herft assumed his appointment, he received no notification . . . of any allegations of child sexual abuse made against members of the clergy or lay people associated with the Diocese,” the commission said.

“During Bishop Herft’s tenure as Bishop of Newcastle, paedophilia generally, and paedophilia within the Anglican church in particular, was a live issue.”

Bishop Herft told the commission that before 2002, if someone would not put their allegation of child abuse in writing, the diocese would take no further action. In hindsight, he accepted that this left children at risk and was “totally unacceptable”.

On legal advice to the bishop in 1998 by Paul Rosser QC, the commission said it was “satisfied that the effect of this advice was to encourage Bishop Herft to remain wilfully blind to the criminal misconduct of his clergy”. 

On the “yellow envelope” file of complaints against clergy, the commission accepted that there were at least 30 files relating to child sexual abuse. Correspondence or notations on the envelopes indicated Bishop Herft had been made aware of 24 of these, and that he went to the police over three of them.

“Very few allegations of child sexual abuse that police were not already aware of were reported to the police during Bishop Herft’s tenure,” the report says. 

The report notes there was an informal method of “screening” for “problematic clergy”, using a “caveat list” until 1985, when it was discontinued on “legal advice”.

Bishop Herft told the hearing that bishops used a “black book system” until the late 1990s. The commission said it was satisfied that an index uncovered during a search for documents “was the index to a black book maintained by Bishop Herft”.

On Father Rushton and a cache of pornographic videos, the commission said it was “satisfied that, in 1998, removalists located child pornography at Father Rushton’s home”. Father Rushton had provided some videos to the church to show they were not child pornography but the commission said it did not seem to occur to anyone that he “might not have provided all the videos or materials that the removalists had complained of”.

In 2010, when Bishop Farran wrote to his predecessors seeking information about Rushton, both Bishop Holland and Bishop Herft said they had “no prior knowledge of the abuse”, which the commission described as “not correct”.

The report noted that six men who studied at the diocese’s Morpeth College had been convicted of child abuse with another 10 standing accused. but this was not enough to establish that a paedophile ring grew out of the college.

The report says 40 to 50 people have received redress from the diocese. Doubling the top payout in 2015 to $150,000 led to a “significant” takeup of the offer.