Sins of omissionA priest convicted of child sex abuse was forgiven his crime by the church, reports Tony Koch
November 11, 2006
God's special concern to protect the vulnerable and thedefenceless is to shine through the life of the church. So if it evercame about that the weak or vulnerable are harmed by the actions of thechurch, it is a fundamental betrayal of justice, of God and the gospelof Christ. Dealing with this matter in the life of the church, justlyand with care for the most vulnerable, goes to the heart of God'smission.
- Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, presidential address to the synod of the Brisbane diocese, June 2002
WHETHER religious leaders - in this case in the Anglican Church- have abandoned the belief that forgiving the sin of child sexualabuse also forgives the crime that was perpetrated was thrown intograve doubt in the Brisbane District Court this week. The convictionand jailing of Anglican priest Robert Sharwood for the abuse of a boybeginning in 1974 when the child was 13 demonstrated yet again thatalthough senior church leaders knew Sharwood had admitted the crime, itwas not reported to police in almost three decades.
Instead, Sharwood was appointed to a leading Brisbane boys school,the Anglican Grammar School (Churchie), where he remained as chaplainfor 18 years until the victim blew the whistle in 2002.
Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, who as Primate of Australia isthe leader of the nation's Anglican Church, took office in 2002, at atime when abuse of children by clergy was a paramount issue.
His predecessor, (then governor-general) Peter Hollingworth, wasembroiled in accusations of covering up sexual abuse accusations withinhis church, and they eventually brought him down in disgrace from hisvice-regal post.
A senior woman journalist in a rural Queensland city kick-startedHollingworth's downfall with a series of stories accusing him and thechurch of failing to address the sex abuse of children.
That journalist and her husband, devoted Anglican churchgoers whotithed their income to the church from the day they were married, havebeen tormented by the church since that time.
It was the interviews she conducted, the court cases she attended,the diligent research she undertook that brought the journalist toaddress her own problems: the inexplicable mood changes of her husbandand his inability to participate in normal intimacy.
She loved him and supported him when his spirit almost gave out:through his psychiatric assistance and his lows so deep that hecontemplated suicide. The dedicated wife recognised in him the signsshe had seen in those she interviewed, and knew in her heart that hehad been a victim of abuse.
It took years of painstaking inquiry to get him to admit the horrorshe had endured when a priest trusted by his devoutly religious familybegan to groom him as a victim. He succeeded, mainly because the childwas unworldly, frightened and had nowhere to complain.
It transpires that both his parents knew at different times that theabuse had occurred - his mother was a witness to one incident - yeteven the parents could not discuss it with each other, such was theirdevotion to the church and their disbelief that it was occurring.
When Judge Fleur Kingham was considering the sentence for Sharwoodon Thursday, the victim's impact statement told how the abuse andsubsequent cover-up had shaken his faith.
"These consequences have been a source of great discouragement to mebecause I judge I am unable to live up to the high behavioural ideals Ihold as a Christian," he wrote. "This is more than my personal 'thornin the flesh', as St Paul would term it, because it was the result ofactions perpetrated on me by another. That is, I was robbed of theopportunity to order my own life.
"While I have maintained a staunch faith in God, I have suffered aloss of meaning in relation to my faith. It has been difficult tomaintain a regular pattern of prayer and Bible reading when God seemsirrelevant to daily life."
He wrote that counselling by his family doctor, two psychologistsand a consultant psychiatrist had enabled him to recognise that theresponsibility and blame lay completely with the abuser, Sharwood.
"For many years following the abuse, which occurred from 1974 to1976, I had believed I was unaffected by it," he wrote. "However, as isfrequently the case, the traumatic events of those years returned tohaunt me in my early 40s.
"This was triggered, I believe, by being in close proximity toSharwood during a week-long music school in January 2002, where he wasthe course chaplain.
"In 2002 my eldest son was the same age as I was when the abusebegan, and I began to realise the effects that the abuse had had on meand my behaviours throughout my adult life."
Central to the anxiety suffered by the victim and his wife was theirgrappling with the criminal court case when it was looming, and takingon the church in civil proceedings in which the victim sought courtapproval to have the time extended for him to lodge a compensationclaim.
They lost the case and had costs of $20,000 awarded against them,but that was overturned on appeal. Then came the serious decision: topursue more expensive litigation or go through a mediation process withthe church and arrive at a compensation figure.
A moderate $50,000 amount was settled on eventually, with the churchundertaking to pay legal and medical costs, including counselling forthe next five years.
The victim had sought more than $500,000 to cover his loss of income, pain and suffering and other damages.
"We settled because we were forced to, because what we risked wasenormous court costs," he said. "Very few people seemed keen to assist.
"The Queensland Attorney-General has the legislative power to grantspecial leave to protect the civil right of a person like me who isforced to wait until the end of a criminal hearing to proceed.
"On October 24, 2005, I wrote to attorney-general Linda Lavarch,setting out the circumstances facing me in relation to the PersonalInjuries Proceedings Act.
"I told her the Director of Public Prosecutions had asked me todelay the civil action until after the criminal case (against Sharwood)to protect the criminal case, and I agreed.
"And that was another reason why we had to settle with the churchfor an unsatisfactory amount -- because Ms Lavarch did not even replyto my letter."
Lavarch resigned from cabinet last month, announcing she was suffering from depression.
The victim says the criminal trial had been taxing, particularlyhaving to undergo cross-examination for almost a day in-camera.
"Sharwood's defence seemed to be based on an accusation that I waspushed into complaining by my wife who was heavily involved inreporting sex-abuse trials at the time," he says. "But that was not so.I made up my own mind. It took me a while to come to the decision."
Particularly galling to the victim and his wife was that Sharwood gave them communion at their wedding.
He was assisting the Tom Hood, who wrote to Aspinall in 2002 askingfor Sharwood to be reinstated as a priest. Hood knew Sharwood hadsexually abused the groom when he was a 13-year-old boy, yet he allowedhim to co-celebrate the wedding and give the couple communion.
Hood says the letter he wrote was not something he regretted. Hesays he was aware that Sharwood had been sacked from Churchie becauseof the allegation, which Hood knew about, but it was not for him tovolunteer that information to the police.
"I did not feel it was up to me to stick my nose in," Hood says. "It never crossed my mind to go to the police.
"I thought the school (Churchie) were just looking after themselveswhen they dismissed him. There had been no other incident I knew of,and it was very difficult for him (Sharwood)."
The victim also questioned why the Anglican Church had allowedSharwood to stay in the choir in Brisbane, and whether it wasappropriate for him to do so, given the admissions of abuse and theopportunity he was being given to have further contact with youngchildren.
In delivering her sentence, Kingham told Sharwood he had corrupted the teenager.
"You took advantage of and abused the trust the victim's family placed in an office-holder of the church," she said.
Kingham said there was no evidence given to the court that Sharwoodhad abused other children, although the court was not made aware thattwo other men had recently come forward to Aspinall's office and madeallegations concerning sexual abuse by Sharwood when they wereteenagers. Those allegations are being investigated by police.
The victim said he was satisfied with the two years and nine monthssentence handed down to Sharwood, of which he has to serve one year.
"I don't suppose even one day in prison is very pleasant," he says."I will have to move on now and start rebuilding my own life and mylife with my wife and family and put all this behind me."
He says he is going to try to reconstruct his life, but it will takea lot to convince him that the church has yet accepted that it does nothave the God-given right to forgive crimes - particularly crimesagainst innocent children.
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