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No easy fixes for preventing abuse, warns Freier

24 March 2017


Testimony: Anne Hywood, General Secretary of Australia's General Synod, speaks at the hearings in Sydney, last week ICIRCSA

Testimony: Anne Hywood, General Secretary of Australia's General Synod, speaks at the hearings in Sydney, last week ICIRCSA

THE Australian Primate, Dr Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne, appearing before the Royal Com­mission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, has warned against seeking simple answers about abuse.

On the final day of the four-day hearing on the Anglican Church’s responses, a panel of six witnesses was questioned intensively about the causes of child sexual abuse in the Church, particularly focusing on clericalism. Dr Freier cautioned, however, that the propensity to abuse children was found in all forms of human community because “it is a deep thing in our human nature that we need to be very vigilant to protect against.”

In response to the suggestion that the Church might need to reflect on whether distinctive clergy dress and church ceremonial created an impression of power on impression­able people, Dr Freier explained that the symbolism of clerical vesture did not so much indicate a unique status as that the priest was a representative of the whole baptised community.

Earlier, the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, suggested that the Anglo-Catholic tradition of calling priests “Father” might have been a significant aspect of church-based child abuse, “particularly for vulnerable boys, where the father­hood connection has been lost and the priest becomes the surro­gate father”.

In Sydney diocese, where there had been more allegations of child sexual abuse against lay people than clergy, clericalism was not the key issue, he said. Rather, lay people had used the safety of the church environ­­ment in youth activities, for instance, to commit abuse.

In the past, he continued, perpe­trators had been too easily forgiven in a culture in which recidiv­ism was not expected. “I think at heart people almost didn’t believe such behaviour could be engaged in in a church environment,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t listen pro­perly to children and, when com­plaints were made, they were not properly addressed.”

The four-day public hearing heard that more than 1000 people had complained of being sexually abused as children in the Australian Anglican Church, accord­ing to data compiled by the Royal Commission from complaints made to Australian dioceses between January 1980 and Decem­ber 2015. This compares with the Com­mission’s data of 4500 com­plaints, concerning 1880 alleged offenders, made to the Roman Catholic Church in the same time frame (News, 10 February).

Of the 569 identified alleged Anglican perpetrators, 247 were clergy and 285 were lay, and the status of another 37 was unknown; 94 per cent were male. Seventy-five per cent of complainants were male, and 11 was the average age at the time of the abuse for both boys and girls. The average time between the alleged abuse and the lodging of a complaint was 29 years. One quarter of abuse incidents had occurred in the 1970s.

Dr Freier expressed “shock and dismay” at the Church’s failure to tackle child sexual abuse in the past. “We are deeply ashamed of the many ways in which we have let down survivors,” he said. The Church had in recent years invested a great deal of energy in trying to understand its failings in this area, he said, and, while it had improved in many areas, it was still striving to improve further.

He gave a commitment to the Commission that he would “expend my best energy” to ensuring that the next meeting of the General Synod in September put in place uniform child-protection practices across the national Church. The current lack of uniformity across the 23 dioceses has been criticised repeatedly by the Commission.


Bishop Thomson steps down. THE Bishop of Newcastle, New South Wales, the Rt Revd Greg Thompson, has announced his resignation for health reasons. Bishop Thompson, aged 60, who has been in post since 2014, will conclude his term of office at the end of May. Currently on sick leave, he will not return to active duties in the diocese.

Bishop Thompson revealed last year that, as a young man, he had been abused by a former Bishop of Newcastle; he has been a strong advocate for sexual-abuse survivors (News, 29 July 2016).

Speaking on a national television programme last July, he accused former diocesan personnel of removing documents and covering up serial offending. He described it as a “mates looking after mates” culture.

He has said that he was “not welcome in his own cathedral” because of opposition to his attempts to change the diocese’s culture concerning child sexual abuse.

In his statement last week, Bishop Thompson said that he had witnessed the diocese’s culture “first hand, both as victim of abuse and in my work as bishop to address the diocese’s abuse legacy. When I started this journey to right the wrongs of child abuse in the diocese, I didn’t expect to be in this position, nor did I expect to uncover systemic practices that have enabled the horrendous crimes against children.”

Bishop Thompson was previously the Bishop of the Northern Territory in Australia from 2007 to 2013.

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