Sunday, 18 September 2011

On the evils of Adelaide...

I really shouldn't have put the blog back online (which I did so that people could follow links etc to older material) because I'm afraid I just can't resist the temptation to comment.   But I drafted this a few days ago, and now, impelled by a sermon this morning (see today's other post), have decided to post it.

A modern horror story

The Australian Church has been convulsed over the last week, by a modern horror story.  For the background to this case now playing out nationally and internationally, see the sequence of stories in the sidebar (oldest at bottom). 

The short version is, Archbishop Hepworth, Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion four years or so ago told Church authorities that his reason for leaving the Catholic Church (of which he was an ordained priest) was sexual abuse at the Adelaide seminary and subsequently as a young priest.   He sought their help in both dealing with his allegations, and resolving his personal situation so as to allow him to be reconciled with the Church.

The allegations of abuse at the seminary have been accepted in the case of two of his abusers, handled by the Melbourne Archdiocese within a year.  The admittedly more complex case of his alleged rape at the hands of an Adelaide priest remains unresolved and on the face of it virtually unactioned four years later.  On the face of it, a sorry state of affairs for the diocese of the President of Australia's Bishops Conference.

Horror, despair and hope

The Hepworth case convulsing the Australian Church at the moment is both a matter of horror and hope. 

Horror that what Archbishop Hepworth claims to have happened him - and who knows how many other Adelaide (and other) seminarians, priests and others - can have been found to be considered to be plausible by the Melbourne process and is believable because of what we know has happened elsewhere in Australia and overseas.

Despair that despite all that has happened over the last few years, yet another case of accusations against a priest appears to be being badly mishandled by the authorities, and bringing the church into yet more disrepute. 

Yet hope that out of this, a cleansing of the Australian Church might yet occur.

Shoot the messenger....

Unfortunately, many seem to be trying to portray this story as a conservative beat-up with a political agenda. 

This surely ignores the hard facts and circumstances of the case.

I, personally, am not convinced that Senator Xenophon's decision to name the accused priest in Parliament was on balance justified at this time.   

Still, that he has been named is not an issue of 'natural justice' as some have claimed (that is an entirely different concept). 

Nor is it necessarily about the presumption of innocence, since many people accused of various crimes are named yet subsequently not found to have a case against them. 

But people do have the right to a good reputation.  That is a serious right, that should, where possible, be respected.

But as with all such rights, it has to be weighed against the public good, and I can certainly understand the Senator's frustration in the face of the statements that the archdiocese has been making.  Let's take a look at some of them

Claim 1: AB Hepworth should have gone to the police (years ago)

Several statements have suggested that AB Hepworth should go to the police on this matter, and indeed should have gone to them years ago.  Mr Pearson's piece in this week's Weekend Australian takes up this point and points out that while this should certainly be encouraged, it is perfectly understandable why the Archbishop might not choose this route.  And the 'Towards Healing' document which is supposed to govern how cases in Australia are managed acknowledges this.

Let me add a few points though, to his arguments. 

First consider why then Fr Hepworth didn't go to police at the time.  Hepworth alleges that he was raped in the mid-1970s - just a few years after the notorious murder of homosexual University of Adelaide professor George Duncan (who drowned in the Torrens), an event in which the police were deeply implicated. Not exactly a group of people one might think it safe to go to in the circumstances. 

As for the reasons for continued reluctance, many women baulk at pursuing rapists to trial, knowing that they themselves will come under attack from the defense.  How much worse it would be in a case like this: even today, relatively few adult male on adult male rape cases have actually proceeded to trial.  Fewer still when it essentially comes to the word of one person against another.  And if he were to take the matter to the police now, this could become a further reason for delaying the resolution of his own reconciliation with the Church (and potentially that of the Traditional Anglican Communion).

Archbishop Hepworth wanted the matter dealt with internally within the Church.  He has a right for this to occur and for his decision on the matter to be respected.

Claim 2: Monsignor Dempsey (the accused) should not be stood aside...

Far more disturbing though, in terms of the archdiocese's handling of the case, is the refusal to have the accused priest, Msgr Dempsey, stand aside.  As Cardinal Pell has pointed out, this needs to be explained.  the press release put out by Archbishop Wilson in response doesn't cut the mustard in my view.

I'm not making any judgments about Msgr Dempsey's guilt or innocence. I've actually heard good things about his sermons for example, his interesting views on the Church's teachings on sexuality (see the sidebar) notwithstanding.

But being stood aside is not an indication that someone is guilty or not guilty.

It is, however, a fairly standard practice in the face of serious allegations that is about protecting everyone involved while an investigation occurs. 

It is, above all, an indication that the claims made are being treated seriously.

So it is deeply concerning to read from Archbishop Wilson's press statement that:

"The question has been asked as to why I have not stood the priest aside from his ministry during this investigation. My answer is very clear. Priests are normally stood aside from their ministry when accusations of child sexual abuse are made or where there is otherwise any risk posed by that priest’s continued ministry.

Is the Archbishop really suggesting that a rapist would not pose a risk of any kind?  That even if found guilty he could continue in his ministry?!  Is he really saying that the only serious crime that would case a priest to be stood aside is an accusation of child sex abuse?  I am not making a call on Mgr Dempsey's guilt or innocence, just suggesting that rape is a serious crime and should be treated as such!

Archbishop Wilson goes on to add that the events concerned allegedly took place forty years ago.

But is this a relevant consideration?  A mortal sin or crime is a mortal sin or crime whenever it was committed.

And the problem in assessing risk is that we do not know whether, if it occurred, this was a one off thing, or part of a continuing pattern of behaviour.  In so many other cases the first accusations that come to light often turn out to be but the tip of the iceberg.

Thirdly, the Archbishop points to  'the presumption of innocence'.

As I pointed out above, the presumption of innocence is not relevant here. In a court trial for example, those charged with a crime are often not granted bail - yet may subsequently found to be innocent.

The Archbishop's final argument is "the good standing of the priest under investigation".

This is surely the most problematic argument of all. This kind of argument is the very reason why the Church has been (rightly in my view) attacked for its mishandling of abuse cases.  Doesn't it imply a prejudgment of the relative merits of the claims of the accused and accuser rather than a willingness to let the matter be properly investigated?  And doesn't it fail to acknowledge the point made in the 'Towards Healing' document that:

"Offenders frequently present as respectable, good and caring people. They can be quite exemplary in their public life, while at the same time living a private life that contradicts their public image."

Claim 3: AB Hepworth asked that an investigation not proceed...

The strangest part of this story is surely the Archdiocese's claim that despite being given a lengthy document setting out the details of the claims, the Archbishop asked that no action be taken.

Frankly, even if this were the case, the Archdiocese surely had a duty to undertake some investigation on its own cognizance to satisfy itself that the accused priest was not in fact a practising homosexual or involved in coercive behaviour with others and that there was therefore no risk associated with leaving the accused priest in ministry. 

But in any case, the Archdiocese's line on this is difficult to reconcile with the swift resolution of the case against the two Melbourne priests (after, apparently Cardinal Pell's suggestion that he refer the matter to Melbourne), and the Archbishop's provision of several supporting statements over the period.  Moreover, the Archbishop Hepworth denies this claim, and he has a witness who supports him.  In fact it appears what he was quite properly resisting was the Archdiocese's attempts to make him his alleged rapist meet face-to-face in a 'mediated' meeting!

The reconciliation of the TAC

There are of course a number of complicating factors in this whole story, one of which is the reconciliation of the Traditional Anglican Communion. 

Many of us have wondered why things were moving so slowly in Australia, when they have been moving so expeditiously in England and elsewhere.  Presumably, the answer is in part the need to resolve Archbishop Hepworth's personal situation, since as Primate of the group he would want to be at least able to receive communion with the newly reconciled group.

A sympathetic Catholic bishop or group of bishops might have looked for a way to cut through all of this and separate out the issues.  A sympathetic bishop would gave given the Archbishop frank and honest advice in writing about what was possible and likely, and facilitated him making his case formally on his own situation with Rome.

But the liberal establishment that predominates among our bishops is, perhaps, less likely to be sympathetic to a group of conservative anglicans.

Particularly at the very time when they want to champion the cause of Bishop Morris with the Pope during their upcoming ad limina visit, a debate over the very issue that precipitated the traditional Anglican break, women priests!

Archbishop Hepworth's personal case

It may be though that part of the problem rests in part with the Archbishop himself, since some of his comments do seem to suggest that he holds out some prospect of him being returned to ministry in the Catholic Church.

I'm not an expert on canon law, but on the face of it, notwithstanding the circumstances of Archbishop Hepworth's departure from the Church, this seems pretty much impossible unless he agrees to separate from his wife which he has given no public indication that he is willing to do.

If, as has been reported, he has never been laicized, then neither of his purported marriages are valid in the eyes of the Church, since being a priest constitutes an impediment to marriage.

It would certainly be theoretically possible for him to be laicized, granted permission to marry (two separate issues) and so have his current marriage validated.

But for a validly ordained Catholic priest, even one coming back via the Anglican Church, to be explicitly granted a dispensation to marry and continue to practice as a priest?  Personally, I just can't see the Vatican ever wanting to set the precedent, no matter what the circumstances. 


And then of course there is the fact that Archbishop Wilson's point man on this issue has been the controversial Monsignor Cappo.

Leaving aside the politics of the person and his association with the soon to be ex-Premier of South Australia, the real issue, it seems to me, is symbolism: should we be focusing first on saving souls and administering the Church well, or focussing on saving those deemed to be oppressed or disadvantaged here and now?

All too many of Australia's bishops, religious and priests, whether liberal or conservative, seem far more intent on playing in the public square, obsessed with politics and power, rather than worship and cleaning up their own houses.  It doesn't, in my view, matter whether they are saying the right things, arriving at the right conclusions or not.  The point is that in doing so, in putting their efforts into lobbying and press releases they are squeezing out the space for lay action, rather than empowering and supporting the laity through the sacraments and proper instruction to take on what Vatican II (rightly in my view) insisted was primarily a lay responsibility.

We live in a time when Church attendance and numbers practising the faith continues to fall, heresy is rife and preached from the pulpit each Sunday, and priests and laity simply don't know or believe in their own faith.  Even when it comes to matters of the Church's social teaching, they are far more likely to be told to support this or that position rather than actually taught the appropriate principles so they can arrive at a judgement for themselves.

Souls and lives are at stake.

Yet there continues to be little or no accountability of the clergy for the Church's own administration and mission, as this whole story clearly illustrates.
Yet instead of seriously addressing these issues, and actively working to empower laypeople to play their proper role in the public square, our clericalist bishops continue to offer a constant stream of media releases on issues like prisons, refugees and the like.  And a high profile priest from a diocese with a shortage of priests has consistently taken on ever more highly politicized tasks.  Well, at least that has been stopped for the moment.

The bottom line is that it is all about priorities.  

So is there a political agenda behind this story?  Of course there is.  It is about the fight for the future of the Australian Church - indeed about whether there is any prospect of their being such an entity in a few years time.  Because there won't be if the current liberal establishment continues to ignore the elephant in the room that is the current devastated state of the Australian Church.

Should be an interesting ad limina visit next month.


A Canberra Observer said...

A comprehensive piece.

However, I will take up one point - regarding presumption of innocence and the comparison with a trial situation and bail.

To have got to the court the police and the DPP must have determined they have sufficient evidence to bring charges, and therefore apprehend and detain a person. The court has a view to that evidence and the expectation that the DPP do not enter the fray frivolously.

The Xenephon STUNT would be viewed as blackmail in any other place.

A Canberra Observer said...

while we disagree in some points, I suspect we would agree that the forestry adage (and practice): "full sunlight regeneration" would not be astray here.

Kate said...

CO - What makes you see it as a stunt?

Perhaps a better example than bail would be just the process of publicly arresting someone - consider for example the recent ex World Bank Chief case (not that the whole thing wasn't a disgrace from all perspectives). The reality is that people are often named as being accused of a crime they subsequently are either acquitted of or not even found to have a case to answer on.

Is there a public interest in the naming process? Sometimes.

A Canberra Observer said...

What did the Senator really expect to achieve ? (except perhaps the further aggrandisement of himself as the sole arbiter of truth - someone really should tell him that the roles of messiah and superman have been taken).

Maybe I am wrong but my subjective view is that he engaged in a gross abuse of his position (and it would seem the President of the Senate very strongly cautioned him against the action). There was no imminent danger that would be addressed by his action. He cannot possibly have been in full possession of the facts (in this case I wonder if anyone is).

Kate said...

Canberra Observer - You obviously feel strongly about this given your series of comments reiterating the same points.

But it is still not obvious to me just why you take this position since you haven't responded to the actual arguments in my post.

How do you know, for example, that there was no imminent danger?

And for the record, who cares what another pollie, viz President of the Senate, thinks? Parliamentary privilege exists for a reason.

A Canberra Observer said...

Terra, we obviously both feel strongly about this. Not sure I'll help anything by further comment.

Tony said...

There are so many flaws and prejudical arguments in this that it's hard to know where to start.

The implication, if you view is to be believed, is that not only are +Wilson and Cappo not on your Xmas list but that they are liars and have deliberately put their flock at risk and all this is based on what you admit are 'on the face of it' facts.

Not content with that, you, like Pearson, mix the obvious pain that Hepworth experienced and continues to experience, with a reflection on your view of Church politics? I find this incrediably callous.

You also ignore what Hepworth has acknowleged in recent days and that was that he, in fact, didn't authorise a formal investigation until February this year.

The much praised 'Melbourne Process' took over 12 months and involved accused who had form and were dead. The Adelaide Towards Healing process involves a priest who is alive, has exemplary service and who emphatically denies the allegations. It's been going for 7 months.

The notion that the Adelaide dio should have been investigating an incident that happened 45 years ago without the cooperation of the accuser is fanciful and an insult to his wishes. Are you suggesting that they should have conducted this unwished for investigation in secret?

If you were the innocent accused in that situation you'd immediately demand, quite reasonably in my view, to know who your accuser was and what his accusation was. Otherwise it is no better than a witchunt.

As for standing down, it's a judgement call based on actually knowing the evidence. You don't and just because you clearly don't trust +Wilson, you assume you know better.

Finally, you draw the most tenuous link to the Duncan case as a possible reason why Hepworth didn't go to the police. It's a link that Hepworth himself hasn't drawn but you have an 'Evils of Adelaide' narrative to fulfill.

The question about Hepworth going to the police is about the contemporary process, not about why he didn't go to the police at the time.

Ambrose said...

Thanks very much for being able to provide a different perspective on this complex issue - your insight in to this along with other issues like Bishop Morris has been a welcome relief from the usual nonsense we read about the church from people who still call themselves Catholic but in reality their hearts and minds have left the church but they act like the church has left them.