FORMER Newcastle Anglican Bishop Brian Farran has told the Royal Commission how he “agonised” over defrocking the then Dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence, in 2012, because of Mr Lawrence’s reputation in the diocese.
Resuming his evidence on day 13 of the Royal Commission hearing, Mr Farran was questioned from 11.30am until 1pm on various matters during his time in the diocese, including the confirmation that emerged after his death that priest Peter Rushton had been a serial paedophile.
Mr Farran told counsel assisting the commission, Naomi Sharp, that there had been an almost complete loss of corporate memory at the top of the diocese in the months before he arrived in June 2005 and so “a lot of knowledge of these things may have just gone out the door”.
But questioned by Ms Sharp, Mr Farran then agreed that Graeme Lawrence had been there for a long time, as had the diocesan solicitor Robert Caddies – who gave evidence on Wednesday – and solicitor Keith Allen (who gave evidence back in August) and the diocesan chancellor, Paul Rosser.
After meeting with a small group of people at the Wallsend parish, Mr Farran said he accepted that Rushton had been abusing children. He said he and the diocese’s director of professional standards, Michael Elliott, believed that “there must have been other people operating in this way” and so a media statement was issued about Rushton, which Mr Farran said was at least partly designed to encourage “other potential victims to come forward”.
He didn’t know if any others did come forward but the media release generated “a furious reaction” from within the diocese because he had “defamed the dead”.
Mr Farran said that over the course of his time in Newcastle he had “eight or nine” complaints lodged against him with church authorities by members of his diocese: all were dismissed, some of them summarily, others after investigation.
Towards the end of his pre-lunch evidence, Mr Farran asked the commission chairman, Peter McCLellan, if he could give a lengthy explanation of the process he went through in deciding whether to defrock Mr Lawrence and others that were involved in a complaint to the church’s professional standards board over an incident of alleged group sex with a youth, given the pseudonym CKH, in the 1980s.
Mr Farran said the church’s professional standards board had recommended Lawrence be defrocked but he had formed a view not defrock him, initially.
He said he had been “deeply affected” by an interview with the late Peter Rushton’s sister who told of the impact that the church’s statements confirming his crimes had had on “her adult sons . . . and how they were suffering some form of abuse in their work situations because of it”.
He said he was not “discounting the impacts on primary victims” but when he thought about the impacts on secondary victims he was thinking of the “extraordinary civic farewell” that Mr Lawrence had been given upon his retirement and and how he had baptised and married people for all of those years and what impact it might have on them if they came to believe the man who officiated at their ceremonies was not a priest.
He said he wanted to “permanently inhibit him but not defrock him”.
But his attitude changed when he flew with Michael Elliott to meet CKH, to tell him of his intention.
He said CKH told him about the effect that “Lawrence had had on him and his life and how Lawrence had abused him”. He realised his main obligation was to “the primary victim”, CKH, so he said he went outside and rang Bishop Peter Stuart in Newcastle asked him to prepare the documents to defrock Lawrence.
In the final section of evidence before lunch, Mr Farran responded angrily to the publication of a conversation that he had had with the diocesan business manager John Cleary, which Mr Cleary had preserved in a file note.
Initially agreeing the file note was an accurate rendering of their conversation, Mr Farran became agitated when Ms Sharp asked him if it was correct, as Mr Cleary had written, that he was “intimidated” by Mr Lawrence.
Mr Farran said he was “shocked that this is here”, referring to the contents of the file note, which was displayed to all in the commission hearing room in Sydney, but not visible on the public webcast.
He said to have it brought up in this way was “the greatest breach of friendship” he had ever experienced.
Pressed on whether he was intimidated or not, Mr Farran said he had been intimidated when, at the age of 24, he was sharing a house with Lawrence, “a known homosexual where you might pass each other in the bathroom”.
But in 2012, as a 68-year-old bishop, he had “authority” and was certainly not intimidated by Mr Lawrence or any of his supporters at Christ Church Cathedral.
He agreed with Ms Sharp that there had been repercussions against him over his actions against Mr Lawrence and the other people involved in that investigation; Andrew Duncan, Bruce Hoare, Graeme Sturt and Greg Goyette.
Mr Farran said Mr Lawrence had always spoken of putting the church first but in acting as he had, he said “he put himself above the church”.
He said Mr Lawrence had taken the church to a secular court, which was “forbidden in scripture”, and had put him, as bishop, in “an invideous position”.
The hearing resumes after lunch.