It takes a village to prevent institutional child abuse

"It takes a village..." was perhaps Hillary Clinton's most memorable line. It was given a macabre twist in the Academy award-winning movie Spotlight, about the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic Church clergy in Boston. One of the actors observed that "if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one".

We are about to learn more about the NSW "village" of Newcastle, in which an extraordinary number of respected citizens appear, through action or inaction, to have helped cover up allegations of sexual abuse.

Four years after Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into institutional responses to abuse, the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, is due to take the stand on Wednesday in Sydney when the commission reconvenes for case study 42. He has already given evidence privately, as perhaps the most senior clergyman to do so. He grew up in the Hunter Valley and was sexually abused while a university student in Newcastle. After serving as a priest in many parts of Australia, including Canberra, he returned to Newcastle as bishop in 2014.

He says he was greeted by senior community figures keen to "groom" him. One legal figure recommended a system of internal reviews; an opportunity for the new bishop to "learn" but also, he realised, be potentially compromised. “They [lawyers] have been trying to manage the fallout that they know about, so I would become acquainted with it. He wanted to know what would I do with it,” Thompson says. He went straight to the police.

Within months he issued a formal apology to victims and announced he wouldn't live in the "house on the hill" traditionally occupied by the bishop, as the stately mansion had come to represent all that was wrong with religious power. It's since been sold.

In Boston, the press had for years turned a blind eye to the industrial scale system of abuse. But the legal profession was worse, enabling it by working for both sides and drawing up secrecy clauses. They were "doing their jobs".

Whistle-blower Thompson sees parallels in his coal-harbour town. He wants, he tells me, a separate inquiry into the legal profession. He talks about a "cabal" that conspired to only half-heartedly investigate perpetrators. There were conflicts of interest. Diocesan lawyers acted for both sides. They provided poor advice, and even "mislaid" records.

It has shades of what's gone on in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat, another big country town with a web of connections and little accountability. Thompson says police should also appear. "Many survivors told police, and police did not act."

It's a salutary lesson for any community that does not have enough checks. The most high-profile alleged offender is Graeme Lawrence, a former long-serving dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the mother church of the diocese. The cathedral dominates the skyline and is a symbol of how far something can fall.

Thompson has attracted co-ordinated opposition, not only from lawyers, but also from politicians and prominent locals. Lawrence, known for his charm and charisma, has a lot of supporters despite being defrocked (although not charged with any crime) more than four years ago. Feeling increasingly exposed, some won't go down without a fight. They are used to a culture that prioritised self-interest over the ethics of Jesus Christ.

The Royal Commission has heard that an extraordinary number of clergy in the Hunter Valley are themselves survivors of sexual abuse. Many had parents in the ministry. The strength and power of the Jesus story helped make it a place they wanted to be despite, or perhaps because of, what happened. But any culture that buries hard truths is going to bare strange fruit. Survivors, it’s now clear, thought hiding ugly experiences helped them forget. But that’s not how memory works. With triggers, trauma re-emerges years later, and often repeatedly.

In wrestling with the culture he is trying to change, Thompson reflects that some senior Anglicans had a “sense of self-entitlement” that led to sex with children “because a system and a culture allowed it to exist”.

There were efforts to change things. A small number of pedophiles were outed, belatedly, as the Anglican Church tried, in a less than comprehensive way, to improve complaint handling and professional standards from the 1990s. While some survivors have had redress through the courts, too often they've had big chunks of their payments siphoned off to lawyers who were connected to the diocese. It was a second tier of abuse.

Parishioners thought bishops were doing the right thing, but often they weren't, some relying instead on poor advice. At least one former bishop, the current Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft (in Newcastle from 1993 to 2005), knew of claims of sexual abuse and did little or nothing, despite legal obligations to report.

Herft seems to have been compromised by a culture of intimidation. He left managers to manage things. A man with a reputation for sticking to the rules, Herft appears to have been too trusting, operating on the assumption that someone who gives their life to Christ to serve in the ministry will do the right thing. It's an assumption common in Christian community, where there is almost a duty to think the best of people while, paradoxically, knowing that we are all flawed.

Since his appearance before the commission in August Herft has temporarily stood aside as the Archbishop of Perth to focus on the Newcastle crisis.

Another pattern revealed by the Commission over months of hearings is that allegations were buried ‘for the good of the church’. It’s why police officers, for decades past, are said to have colluded too. An important question is what did the mother Diocese of Sydney know. There was a lot of letter writing between the two dioceses in the years now in the spotlight.

The church is diminished by all of this. Parishioners and those that worked for the diocese and studied theology in the diocese with names now notoriously connected to sexual abuse are left questioning their faith and the nature of their connections and friendships. Many are in shock; devastated, and feel tainted by association. Some are defensive. Others, who were baptised, confirmed or married by alleged offenders are troubled, wondering about the meaning and status of their special event.

Thompson is working with a small team to explore the best way to support others' post-trauma healing. He says some days he doesn't think too far ahead. Much of his time is talking to Catholics who were abused as children. They seek him out, across denominations.

The can of worms opened in Newcastle exposes not just the institutions concerned, but all of society. The royal commission has not been tasked with examining broader cultural forces. Its job, focused on victim case studies, is mammoth enough. Even there, it has had to prioritise. It simply can't look under every rock. Moving into a final phase before what's called "wrap-up" hearings, the commission is due to present its final report before Christmas next year.

We can already thank the commission for the language it's provided for a long-standing problem swept under the carpet. Faith communities are aware of the risks like never before, resulting in better screening of candidates for the ministry and related training.

What's also clear is that all of the community has a role to play developing child-safe cities and towns with zero tolerance for abuse. An independent redress scheme is only one step towards companionship for survivors. Staying with them for true restoration into community life is a long term project for all the "village".

A shorter version was first published in The Canberra Times, November 15, 2016

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