The Royal Commission has heard a litany of "no recollections" during testimony at Newcastle

In Newcastle: Perth Archbishop Roger Herft did not recall allegations of sex abuse against Graeme Lawrence.
In Newcastle: Perth Archbishop Roger Herft did not recall allegations of sex abuse against Graeme Lawrence.

THE bishops and brothers have had a hard time of it.

At royal commission public hearings in Newcastle over the past month, senior Anglican and Catholic clergymen have struggled with their memories, stumbled over words, made concessions after documents have been produced and, on occasion, been forced to say they’ve not told the truth about their responses to child sexual abuse allegations.

They have “not recalled” a lot.

One of the Australian Anglican Church’s most senior clerics, Perth Archbishop Roger Herft, did not recall receiving serious child sex allegations about the now defrocked former Dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence, in 1995, 1997 and 1999 from three separate sources, including another bishop and a priest, or of speaking to Lawrence on those three occasions and accepting his denials.

“Are you seriously suggesting to the commission that you have no recollection of raising an extraordinarily serious allegation with one of the most senior priests in the diocese?” said counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Naomi Sharp, on August 12, before the archbishop was shown a letter, written by him in 1995 to one of the complainants, confirming the allegation and his subsequent acceptance of Lawrence’s denial.

At an earlier hearing into the Anglican Church in the Hunter, during his time as Bishop of Newcastle from 1993 to 2005, Herft stated: “No one ever raised with me directly or indirectly any matter that would have brought concern to me regarding the behaviour or otherwise of the Dean of Newcastle.” 

By the end of his evidence on August 29, after documents showing he received serious allegations in 1995, 1997 and 1999, Herft accepted he had been advised of the allegations, but insisted he had no recollection of those events, or of speaking to Lawrence and accepting his denials.

Herft is one of seven bishops or archbishops to give evidence at the royal commission’s 42nd public hearing, into how Newcastle Anglican diocese responded to child sex allegations involving eight former priests and two lay people from the 1960s, held in Newcastle from August 2.

The part-heard public hearing will resume in Sydney on November 16, with four more bishops to give evidence.

The 43rd public hearing into how the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese responded to child sexual abuse allegations about a notorious paedophile priest and three Hunter Marist brothers heard evidence from August 31 from two bishops, three Marist leaders from the 1990s to the present, two nuns and a priest.

The back-to-back public hearings came four years after the Hunter Region campaigned for a royal commission into church abuse after the suicide of child sex victim John Pirona. (Then prime minister Julia Gillard announced the formation of the commission in November 2012.)

Pirona’s death in July, 2012, and suicide note with the final words, “Too much pain”, became the final straw for a community rocked by its first serious paedophile priest case in 1995, with the conviction of Vince Ryan for offences against more than 30 boys.

In Newcastle Courthouse this week two of his victims, Scott Hallett and Gerard McDonald, gave shocking evidence of Ryan giving them wine as nine-year-old altar boys and urging them to have anal sex with each other in front of other boys, and of the priest having oral sex with the boys.

Both men told the royal commission they wanted to kill Ryan when he appeared at their high school a few years later for a church service.

“During the service, all I could think about was running to my mate’s parents’ place and grabbing the biggest two knives he had and killing Father Ryan. I didn’t do it. I should have. The damage that bastard’s done to my life, my family, my friends and to everybody else. I feel guilty that I didn’t do it and he went on to abuse other boys,” McDonald told the royal commission.

During the service, all I could think about was running to my mate’s parents’ place and grabbing the biggest two knives he had and killing Father Ryan. I didn’t do it. I should have.

From the testimony of sex abuse victim Gerard McDonald to Royal Commission

Scott Hallett ended his harrowing evidence on Wednesday by asking people to “go home today, pull out a photo of yourself and one of your children when they were 9, 10 or 11 years old… and go through a couple of the statements that survivors have provided you here, and people may get a bit of an insight what our world is like”.

On the second day of the Catholic hearing former Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone admitted he had covered up that the church had known for 20 years that Ryan committed crimes against boys, after he was questioned about his statements and interviews following Ryan’s conviction in 1996.

Royal commission chair Justice Peter McClellan: “The church knew an awful lot more than you revealed in this document, didn’t it?”

Malone: “Yes.”

McClellan: “And you didn’t tell the public that you knew that?”

Malone: “I didn’t tell them, no.”

In later evidence he said the "covering up” was because the church did not want people so shocked by knowledge it had protected a paedophile priest for several decades that they would turn away from their faith.

The retired Hunter bishop, who did not attend a World Youth Day service with Australia’s bishops in Sydney in 2008, but walked across the Harbour Bridge with abuse survivors, said he reached a point where “You either had to try to defend the church or you had to try to serve the needs of survivors, and I chose the latter.”

Justice McClellan responded with the question at the heart of the child sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church – “Why was it ever a choice?’’

Bishop Malone ventured an explanation how church law enshrined secrecy around child sexual abuse.

“Membership of the church is a bit of a strange beast insofar as the church has its own culture, its own law, its own way of obeying structures within the church, its own sacramental system, and as such, it’s divorced from society, and that has meant the church has gone along parallel lines with society, so that civil law somehow was not seen as impinging on the life of the church, in the past,” he said.

Catholic nun Evelyn Woodward told the royal commission she did not follow up once she reported allegations about Vince Ryan to a senior priest, in part because of “the position of women in the church at that time”. “We were pretty low in the pecking order, and there was a hierarchical system which I think led me to say ‘I’ve got to hand it over to whoever’s in charge of the diocese.’ If that makes any sense,” Sister Woodward said.

Two former Newcastle Anglican bishops, Richard Appleby and Alfred Holland, insisted they had never known of any child sex abuse in the diocese, and if they had they would have fought it “decisively”.

Bishop Appleby repeatedly said he had “no recollection” of being told about notorious Hunter Anglican child sex offenders Father Peter Rushton and youth worker James Brown, and denied evidence by others who said they had told him of allegations between 1983 and 1992.

Bishop Holland was repeatedly asked if he was telling the truth during his evidence about Rushton, his denial of knowledge of rumours that trainee priests at St John’s Theological College at Morpeth “might fancy little boys”, or his denial of knowledge that a Wyong priest he wrote a character letter for had been charged with raping a teenage boy.

He also denied a conversation with a lawyer who had “the ear of three bishops”, about obtaining a medical certificate stating the retired bishop was in no fit state to give evidence. Holland also denied being advised to respond to questions by saying he could not recall past events, after the royal commission produced a diocese file note indicating Holland would receive that advice.

The royal commission heard evidence a “gang of three” senior Anglican diocese members - Graeme Lawrence, defrocked priest Bruce Hoare and former diocesan registrar Peter Mitchell – protected Peter Rushton for decades, and Lawrence himself was protected by “a cohort of Newcastle Cathedral practitioners who appear, unquestionably” to have supported him.

Peter Mitchell – jailed in 2002 for defrauding the diocese of nearly $200,000 – repeatedly denied any knowledge of brown or yellow envelopes containing details of child sexual abuse by priests, despite a range of documents showing he was closely involved with the management of the files.

Justice McClellan accused former diocesan lawyer Robert Caddies of leading “coordinated opposition” to current Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson after a group of senior Anglicans, including Mr Caddies and former Newcastle Lord Mayor John McNaughton, complained to the commission in April after the bishop spoke publicly in October about being sexually abused by a bishop.

The group questioned the length of time between the abuse in the 1970s and Bishop Thompson’s disclosure.

“Were you seeking to say to the royal commission that because it’s taken so long, the bishop’s credibility should be looked at?” Justice McClellan said.

Caddies denied it.

In the witness box on Tuesday Audrey Nash, 90, of Hamilton, the mother of Andrew, 13, who hanged himself in his bedroom in 1974, said she believed her son died because he was abused by his Catholic Marist Brother teachers, the now jailed Brothers Romuald (Francis Cable) and Dominic (Darcy O’Sullivan).

Mrs Nash, who said she had committed her whole life to the Catholic Church until very recently, was in tears about the impact of Andrew’s death on her family, the sexual abuse of her surviving son by two Marist Brothers, and her uncritical acceptance of the power of Catholic churchmen.

“I feel so stupid that I used to fear and revere these people and that I used to respect them and look up to them,” she said.

In evidence this week two former Marist Brother leaders, Brothers Alexis Turton and Michael Hill, and former Hamilton Marist College principal Christopher Wade, said they were “naive” to accept the denials of offenders Romuald and Dominic, or could not recall allegations that were put to them.

The royal commission said there were 154 Marist brothers on a list of suspected and confirmed abusers provided to the royal commission and drawn from 25 years of Marist data.

Brother Alexis said he spoke to 52 people after abuse allegations were made, but only 10 admitted abuse.

In evidence on Wednesday Brother Christopher Wade, who was principal of the Hamilton Marist school from 1971 to 1976, said he only ever received one complaint against Brother Romuald.

Brother Christopher said he could not recall attending the Nash house in October, 1974 on the night of Andrew Nash’s death, although he accepted that others, incuding Audrey Nash and her surviving son, said he was there.

 “I don’t recall it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I can’t – I simply can’t recall whether I went to the house or not,” Brother Christopher said.

Counsel assisting the royal commission, Stephen Free, put it to Brother Christopher that it seemed extraordinary that he wouldn’t remember such a tragic event.

“It was a very unusual event. However, in the nature of schools, and particularly one who is in schools for many years, unfortunately, you do come across tragic events” Brother Christopher said.

The royal commission was told Maitland-Newcastle diocese had paid $25.7 million in compensation to victims of child sexual abuse in the Hunter.