Paying for sins
Jill Rowbotham. The Australian. Canberra, A.C.T.:Oct 24, 2006. p. 11
The sexual abuse of children has had an expensive and long- lasting impact on
the churches that let it happen or tried to cover it up, writes Jill Rowbotham
AFTER more than a decade of damage control over the sexual abuse of children,
the churches are still picking up the pieces. Spectacular revelations are few
and far between these days, but look no further than the plight of Adelaide's
Anglicans to see that many dioceses will go on compensating victims for years
In the City of Churches, Anglicans face servicing a $9 million loan that's
needed to finance payouts to more than 70 alleged victims of pedophile church
workers. More than 30 in that group have received $4.5million collectively
after accusing former church youth worker Robert Brandenburg of abuse.
Brandenburg committed suicide on the eve of his arrest in 1999.
Archbishop Jeffrey Driver will oversee a lengthy program of financial recovery
that will involve a 10-year levy of 1 per cent of income, to be paid by
parishioners, and asset sales including the tennis court at his historic
residence, worth up to $2 million, and a church camp site in the Barossa
It is not the first time churches have had to sell off their assets to make up
the shortfall in funds available for payouts to victims of pedophiles: the
Anglican diocese of Tasmania sold its bishop's residence for a similar purpose.
In August, arguably the most notorious Anglican case was settled when Beth
Heinrich was paid $100,000 in compensation for sexual abuse she claims began in
1954, perpetrated by then church warden Donald Shearman, in Forbes, NSW. She
was in her mid-teens at the time and her relationship with Shearman dominated
her life. Although she subsequently married and had five children, she later
lived with Shearman and miscarried his baby before finally breaking away from
Shearman, now 80, went on to become the youngest Anglican bishop in Australia,
and the first to be defrocked after Heinrich's story became public.
The Bishop of Bathurst, Richard Hurford, wrote Heinrich a letter in which the
church apologised unreservedly for Shearman's "sexual abuse and moral
corruption of a minor". But Shearman was not the only bishop to take a fall
over the tragedy. Notoriously, then governor-general Peter Hollingworth, who
had been archbishop of Brisbane when Heinrich first complained about Shearman
in 1995, also came unstuck in the scandal.
In a television interview in 2002, Hollingworth defended Shearman with the
fateful words: "There was no suggestion of rape or anything like that, quite
the contrary. My information is that it was the other way round." Outrage
followed and Hollingworth resigned in May 2003.
It was Hollingworth's second damaging controversy: the first had been a year
earlier over whether he had responded adequately to victims' needs when it came
to light that there had been sexual abuse at the Toowoomba Preparatory School
in 1990. In December 2001, a Supreme Court jury ordered the Anglican diocese of
Brisbane to pay more than $830,000 damages to a female former student of the
school who had been sexually abused by the boarding master.
The court case and the size of the payout left the Anglicans shaken. "That
scared everybody," recalls the Sydney Anglican diocese's professional standards
unit director Philip Gerber. He dates the flurry of victim claims on the
churches from the mid to late '90s, triggered by the Wood royal commission into
the NSW police force, which released a report on pedophilia in 1997, and to the
Toowoomba and Shearman cases.
Church lawyer Rodger Austin notes the rise in reporting of sexual abuse cases
reflected a societal trend towards troubled people seeking counselling or
family therapy. "Once they were able to talk about it to a counsellor, to
acknowledge it, that changed things," he says. "Once that started to happen,
people did have the courage to come forward."
But although most cases may have dated from the mid-'90s, victims' groups were
forming earlier than that. Broken Rites Australia dates from 1992 and opened a
telephone hotline for victims in 1993, staffed by volunteers who are survivors
of church-related sexual abuse.
About 90 per cent of the victims who have contacted the organisation since 1993
have been from a Catholic background and more than half have been males who
were abused as children.
It is a problem, Gerber says, that has occurred in the vast majority of
dioceses in the country, and metropolitan dioceses occasionally contribute some
of the costs in settlements made by less cashed-up rural or regional parishes.
For example, the Sydney and Grafton dioceses helped with the payout to
Heinrich, although Bathurst bore the brunt.
Although those emboldened by reports of former victims successfully holding the
churches to account for its sins over previous decades have stepped forward,
innocent people also have been caught up in the momentum. The best known of
these is George Pell, who stood down from his role as Archbishop of Sydney in
August 2002 while claims he had sexually molested a 12-year-old boy 41 years
earlier were investigated. He was cleared in October that year.
Pell's biographer Tess Livingstone quotes his statement from that time at
length, including his reference to the ordeal as those "dark weeks", and the
strength he found in "the great Christian teachings about suffering, death and
The Catholic Church made some significant payouts, including one in 2002 when
the St John of God Order paid $3.6 million to 24 men with intellectual
disabilities for abuse they suffered in residential care units in Melbourne.
Another potential multimillion payout could be in store for the Sydney Catholic
diocese if lawyer John Ellis succeeds in his claim. It hinges on abuse he
alleges took place when he was a teenage altar boy in Sydney's western suburbs
in the '70s. Claiming repressed memory, Ellis has mounted a civil action
against the archdiocese, seeking redress against it although the alleged
perpetrator, Aidan Duggan, is now dead.
While churches have fought actions brought against alleged pedophile priests
and religious workers in the past, it is the exception rather than the rule
these days. They have also introduced or finetuned policies that enable them to
adopt a methodical approach to complaints and the needs of those making them.
In the Catholic Church this emerged in 1996 as the "Towards Healing" process,
which is observed in every diocese except Melbourne, which has its own set of
protocols. Since then more than 1000 cases have been brought to "some level of
resolution", Catholic national office for professional standards executive
officer Julian McDonald says.
"Towards Healing does not attempt to say we give victims compensation but
payments have been made in recognition of the fact that some harm has been
done," McDonald says. Payments are not capped and there is no national register
of how much the church has paid to aggrieved parties.
The Anglicans also operate a set of professional standards units across all
dioceses that manage grievances. Gerber concedes Sydney's financial strength in
terms of assets and income has been a boon. "We have not had to put any
particular funding aside for it," he says.
Gerber estimates about 20 cases have been paid out for various sums under the
scheme, but none has topped $75,000. He says ballpark figures for the financial
cost to the Anglican Church in Australia to compensate for sexual abuse total
about $15 million. This includes $3 million in setting up systems and processes
to deal with victims and complaints, $500,000 to $1 million in counselling and
meeting immediate needs such as paying bills or paying for retraining, and
about $10million in legal expenses including compensation payouts.
"It's tapering off now," he says of the claims. "As far as you can tell, people
who wanted to raise issues in the main have done so, although others may come
What's happening in Australia is reflected in overseas dioceses, particularly
in the US, where there is no shortage of staggering claims. In 2002 the US
Catholic hierarchy held hastily convened talks with John Paul II in Rome over
how to manage the worsening situation. In a society as litigious as the US, the
realisation that potentially catastrophic financial implications would follow
was swift. That year, the Catholic Church in Boston paid $US30 million to
settle claims of abuse against one priest.
In 2004 the Catholic archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, dramatically filed for
Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which effectively protected it from a $US155 million
action involving 50 molestation charges against one priest. Two abuse trials
had been set to begin just hours after the announcement but were halted. During
the previous four years the archdiocese and its insurers had paid $US53million
for the more than 100 claims, the highest per-capita payments made by any
A year ago, Canada's Supreme Court ruled on a case involving tens of thousands
of indigenous people who were sexually abused through many years in schools run
jointly by the federal government and the churches. Its decision was that they
should receive 75 per cent of their compensation from government and 25 per
cent from the churches.
Gerber believes payouts in Australia will never come within range of those in
North America: "It's an American phenomenon; even one of our biggest cases was
only $800,000. We have probably, by not being litigious, reduced the bill."
Jill Rowbotham is The Australian's religious affairs writer.
Credit: Beth Heinrich, Donald Shearman, Peter Hollingworth
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