Royal commission told of decades of mistreatment of child sex victims

SYSTEMIC issues in Newcastle Anglican diocese allowed a network of child sex perpetrators to operate within the diocese for more than 30 years, counsel assisting the royal commission, Naomi Sharp, said in a final submission released on Thursday.

Central figures during that period included child sex offender priest Peter Rushton and defrocked former Dean of Newcastle Graeme Lawrence, who enlisted the support of senior diocese clergy and lay members to remain dominant.

People who reported allegations of child sexual abuse to senior clergy were treated as if they had fabricated the allegations, and were sometimes threatened with legal action, Ms Sharp said.

Child sex allegations were not reported to police; there was “permissive and timid leadership by successive bishops”, and there was an “over-reliance on the perceived honesty of alleged perpetrators when confronted with allegations.

“There was a lack of turnover of those in positions of governance within the diocese, leading to entrenched positions, conflicts of interest and a narrowed pool of expertise,” Ms Sharp said.

The systemic issues were not just historic, as evidenced by the backlash against Bishop Brian Farran following the defrocking of Graeme Lawrence, and a “campaign” against Bishop Greg Thompson after he disclosed he had been sexually abused by two senior Newcastle Anglican clergymen in the 1970s.

Over decades senior diocese clergy and lay members had minimised the nature and impact of child sex offending, had focused on protecting the reputations of the church and individual clergy, and had misrepresented abusive and predatory sexual relationships as consensual homosexual relationships.

Ms Sharp was critical of a succession of bishops, senior clergy and lay members for their treatment of child sexual assault victims and family members, and failure to protect children.

She singled out Bishop Thompson and three diocese employees for praise.

Former child protection committee representative Jean Sanders, former business manager John Cleary and current child protection director Michael Elliott “have been dedicated and diligent in uncovering child sexual abuse in the diocese and in providing support to survivors”, Ms Sharp said.

There were nearly 150 findings available on the evidence presented to the royal commission, including that Lawrence and former diocese registrar Peter Mitchell adopted a “deliberately obstructive approach” to police investigating complaints against priest George Parker in 2000. It was also open to the commission to find diocese lawyers sought to undermine Parker’s victims.