Royal Commission: Newcastle Anglican diocese's dark child sex history exposed in final report

IN some ways the royal commission's Newcastle Anglican diocese public hearings in August and November 2016 were the most shocking hearings of all.

And that’s saying something of a commission that ran 57 public hearings over five years and uncovered truly horrifying sexual abuse of children over decades in thousands of institutions across Australia.

The Newcastle Anglican hearing stands out because of the banality of abuses of power, the normalising of brutish behaviour and the breathtaking arrogance and hypocrisy of people who purported to represent God on earth, but committed and covered-up crimes.

The significance of the hearing wasn’t just in the level of abuse over decades. It wasn’t just in the number of clerics and religious who committed the crimes, silenced the child victims, protected the offenders and intimidated adult survivors who came forward years later for help.

The Newcastle Anglican hearing stands out because of the active involvement of senior non-clerics in positions of power and influence, who could and should have exposed the abuse but didn’t.

In the Catholic Church clerics hold all the power. In the Anglican Church the power is more diffuse and lay people have much greater influence. The royal commission uncovered evidence that senior non-clerics in Newcastle denied, minimised, looked the other way, made excuses and acted as a group to keep the diocese’s ugly secrets, because retaining their positions of influence required it.

The Newcastle Anglican hearing stands out because of the active involvement of senior non-clerics in positions of power and influence, who could and should have exposed the abuse but didn’t.

As former Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson said after a landmark apology to the diocese’s child sex victims in July, 2015, the diocese had a culture of “mates looking after mates”, and some of those “mates” were lay people.

By the time of the apology the diocese had found tens of thousands of documents in response to a royal commission summons, revealing senior Anglicans had known of more than 30 alleged child sex offenders in the Hunter.   

Consider what Bishop Thompson said on the day of the apology, when he appeared shell-shocked by what the document search had uncovered – men of his church “had this sense of self-entitlement that meant they had sexual relations with children as if that was a part of the role’’. Sexually abusing children and covering it up was just “how things were done”, he said.

Imagine if those words had been uttered by the head of a bank or a government department. It is a measure of how much churches have been damaged by child sexual abuse that we don’t blink when it’s a leading churchman who makes such statements. We’d be outraged and demanding heads to roll if it was a secular or corporate institution leader saying it.

Some of the most stunning moments of the royal commission’s five years of hearings occurred in the light and beautiful Newcastle Courthouse at back-to-back hearings into the Hunter’s Anglican and Catholic churches.

Royal commission chair Justice Peter McClellan’s questioning of diocese legal advisors Keith Allen and Robert Caddies produced explosive minutes of testimony that anyone watching will never forget.

Justice McClellan accused Mr Caddies of leading “coordinated opposition” to Bishop Thompson after a group of prominent Newcastle Anglicans wrote to the commission in early 2016 alleging the bishop potentially exposed young people to danger by not reporting he had been sexually abused by senior Anglican clerics.

There were gasps when Justice McClellan asked Mr Caddies if the group was asking the commission to investigate the bishop.

After an explosive burst of questions and answers Mr Caddies acknowledged he had challenged Bishop Thompson’s credibility in a statement to the royal commission in which he wrote: “I question if Bishop Thompson was in fact abused, why didn’t he report it earlier?”

Mr Caddies’ question was all the more remarkable because the Anglican Church in 2009 released a landmark report on child sexual abuse allegations in dioceses across the country which noted it took, on average, more than two decades for people to disclose their abuse.

It was one of the report’s most important findings at a time when people were inclined to think the longer the period between alleged offences and reporting, the less credible the complainant.

It was and is astounding that Mr Caddies and others criticised Bishop Thompson for the years between his abuse and disclosures – and public disclosures at that – after at least three years of royal commission hearings that overwhelmingly confirmed lengthy delays are the norm rather than exception.

In its final report released on Thursday the royal commission found the letter of complaint and actions of the group “were designed at least in part to discourage the diocese from dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse within the diocese”.

It led the commission to issue a grim warning at the end of the 400-page report: “There is still an attitude in some segments of the diocese that survivors should just ‘move on’. Until that attitude evolves, very little may change in this institution”.

Photos on the front page of the newspaper today show a row of faces of churchmen named in the royal commission report. Some are convicted. Some are dead. Some had allegations raised after they died. The culture of silence, secrecy, intimidation and cover-up provides a reasonable response to anyone questioning why some men went to their graves with reputations intact.

Top left to right are Eric Barker, Ian Barrack (convicted), James Brown (convicted), Ian Shevill, Michael Cooper, Robert Ellmore (convicted); bottom left to right George Parker (charged), Eric Griffith (convicted), Allan Kitchingman (convicted), Lindsay McLoughlin (convicted), Peter Rushton and Campbell Brown.

The royal commission final report details allegations against those men and others. I suggest people read it.

It also chronicles the failure of a succession of bishops to protect children from child sex offenders. Can I suggest you read that sentence again to understand why the royal commission was needed, and why we should stop and think about its findings. Bishops failed to protect children from child sex offenders.

If there is one clear message from the past five years of the commission, and in the Hunter from the past few decades, it is that crimes occur when people find excuses not to act. Institutional child sex abuse is actually the failure of many, many individuals to prioritise protection of the vulnerable above other issues like personal ambition, status, and the standing of the institution.

It is really that simple.