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  Home :: 2006 December :: The power of her fragile heart

Beth Heinrich's claims of sexual abuse brought down agovernor-general. But it was the betrayal by a man she loved thattore her life apart, writes Linda Morris.

There are times of stress and moments of quiet when BethHeinrich catches herself reciting an intimate prayer her one-timelover, a married member of the Anglican clergy, composed forher.

The woman at the centre of the Anglican Church's most notoriousmodern abuse scandal has just been asked whether she is getting onwith her life.

She wonders out loud whether people prefer the truth or asanitised version of the story, that of a victim making the best ofit and moving on. Then she makes it clear that her past is foreverher present.

"It's really, really scary to find myself saying 'Loving Father,Donald and I thank you', and I say to myself, 'What the f--- am Idoing?"'

In August, Heinrich was paid $100,000 in compensation for sexualabuse she claims began in 1954 when she was a teenage schoolgirl inthe care of the Reverend Donald Shearman in the western NSW town ofForbes.

Padre Shearman, as he was called, was the upstanding,charismatic and married assistant priest of St John's and warden ofthe church hostel who went on to become the youngest bishop in theAustralian Anglican Church.

She was 14, the eldest daughter of a farmer and former shirecouncillor.

"Initially, he kissed me. There was a whole lot of groomingbefore that, telling me in confidence that his marriage was amistake and I was the only one with any style, giving mechocolates, presents in my locker, alcohol to drink, exposing achild to the secrets of adult life."

One summer evening Shearman got Heinrich and her classmates tobring blankets to the hostel's common room to listen to agramophone recording of The Snow Goose.

"We were all on the floor in our pyjamas, like sardines, and Iwas with another girl and he came and squashed himself between meand the other girl. And so under cover of semi-darkness and underthe cover of the rugs and in a room full of people what could I do?Yell out that Padre's got his hands on me?"

Heinrich says it was the start of two years of sexual contactwith Shearman, before he expelled her from the hostel, telling herparents she was promiscuous with boys.

But it wasn't the end of the affair. She married a farmer andhad five children. Twenty-one years after that teenage encountershe turned to Shearman, by then a bishop, to escape her unhappymarriage. The pair met again and seven years later, in 1984, heleft his wife and six children to join Heinrich but returned to hisfamily 12 days later.

In the church's frank formal letter of apology to Heinrich inAugust, the Bishop of Bathurst, Richard Hurford, said the churchapologised unreservedly for Shearman's "sexual abuse and moralcorruption of a minor".

"Rev Shearman vilified his victim, lied to others, including herparents, expelled her, truncated her education and initiated therumour that she was promiscuous," the letter says.

"The long-term effects of this abuse and corruption were tocause profound and lasting damage to the schoolgirl's emotional,psychological and spiritual development throughout her adult life.The diocese abhors sexual abuse and regrets deeply your pain andsuffering caused by this shameful behaviour."

But wounds don't always heal. Heinrich has moved on, but thenagain she hasn't.

"In a way I'm still waiting for Donald Shearman to come back. Istill keep saying the prayer he put together for us, he's so far inmy head and it's really scary but I'm the world's best pretender.That's the way I coped when I was sent home in disgrace and I hadto shut down.

"He stole my parent's pride in me and I expected him to comeback and keep his promises."

Even now, her family life is complicated. She is distant fromtwo daughters, and a son, Paul, died of leukaemia. They were thechildren of a rocky marriage Heinrich says she entered six weeksafter she heard Shearman's wife had become pregnant.

"I put up with an [unhappy marriage] because I thought Ideserved it because God was punishing me because I had been wickedwith Shearman."

In 1995, bitter that Shearman hadn't come to see her dying son,she met Peter Hollingworth, then the archbishop of Brisbane, andShearman.

She had with her a letter of apology to her dead parents thatshe wanted Shearman to sign, together with an undertaking that, inretirement, he would no longer preach. She left empty-handed.

"I can't think what the worst thing was he did but one of thesaddest things he did was steal my parents' pride in me. I wasgoing to go to university and become a schoolteacher. I was in thesame year as [the academic and feminist] Wendy McCarthy and lookwhere she is.

"I came first in four subjects in the year before I wasexpelled. I got a special prize for commercial subjects, a first inEnglish and in geography, and I remember my parents there seeing megetting my awards. In the darkened auditorium they were pleasedwith me, and look what happened nine months later? My mother had anervous breakdown and they thought I was promiscuous."

Heinrich eventually went public with her allegations and therest, as they say, is history.

Hollingworth, by then governor-general, can only muse on hisfateful words to the ABC's Australian Story in 2002: "Therewas no suggestion of rape or anything like that, quite thecontrary. My information is that it was the other way round."Outrage followed, and Hollingworth resigned.

Heinrich is unforgiving: "It's very nice if you can swan aroundand get the Australian taxpayers to pay for your lifestyle. Doesn'the have an office in Melbourne, a chauffeur and a car?"

The Heinrich case was significant for more than the downfall ofa governor-general, says Dr Philip Gerber, the director of theSydney Anglican diocese's professional standards unit. It forcedthe national church to face up to its responsibility to give equalhearing to victims and the accused. An episcopal commission was setup to improve the way allegations against diocesan bishops aredealt with.

"It taught the church we do have to respond, we can't put thesematters to one side and they will go away," Gerber says. "We had todeal with the respondents but, more importantly, we had to dealwith the complainants and the victims, and not assume that oncethey have told their story it's over."

If not for his misconduct, Gerber says, Shearman, the firstAustralian bishop to be defrocked, could have gone on to lead thechurch. "He was charismatic and popular. He was a great leader ofpeople and, without this side of his character, he could have beenan archbishop, even a primate."

Heinrich worked part-time as a nurse and volunteer gallery guidein her home town of Wagga Wagga before leaving recently on a tripto Europe.

But she can't or won't put the memories behind her. On heritinerary is Glasgow, to visit the works of Charles RennieMackintosh and the rectory at St Bride's, from where she saysShearman once sent a letter saying, "hold fast, trust in a lovingFather and pray, and I love you".

The letter is among a collection of love letters she kept fromtheir affair which eventually became a "paper trail" of thatencounter. For the church investigation in June 2004 she alsoproduced a copy of an order of service that bears her name, withthe surname crossed out. She believed she would eventually take hissurname.

She has a pearl necklace which she says Shearman left in herlocker at Christmas in 1954, and a gold cross she says he gave herfor her 16th birthday.

"I kept them for him," she says.

Freda Briggs, emeritus professor of child development at theUniversity of South Australia, who spoke to Heinrich several timesafter the 2004 tribunal hearing, says victims often form a lifelongattachment to the perpetrators of abuse.

"I don't think Beth ever left him emotionally. Most people don'tunderstand that when you are sexually abused at puberty, as shewas, it can have a disastrous effect on both social and emotionaldevelopment.

"Children who have premature sexual relationships can remainstuck at the child level and can be controlled by the perpetratorof abuse almost indefinitely. It's about control, power andvulnerability. Beth didn't realise she had been abused. Bethgenuinely believed he was going to marry her. The tragedy is thatthis is something her children could not understand, why this womanin her 60s couldn't get on with life."

Just before she left on her trip, Heinrich was angered by areport published in the University of Queensland's Law andJustice Journal by Howard Munro, dean of the university's StJohn's College.

Munro suggests Shearman's trial before an ecclesiasticaltribunal was blighted because he was unrepresented before thetribunal and had no pro bono legal support.

Munro also suggests that Shearman was dealt with too harshly andsays that, provided he was penitent, he should have been allowed toremain a bishop.

The condemnation of unworthy ministers, even theirexcommunication, he says, must only be invoked once admonition andrepentance have been attempted and failed. Ecclesiastical lawdating back to King James provided for the pardoning of defrockedbishops.

The ability to pardon people for their offences upholds afundamental principle of Christian theology, the forgiveness ofsins, Munro says.

Despite the public trials, Shearman's wife, Fay, and hischildren have stood beside him.

Unhappily, Munro says, soon after the tribunal hearingShearman's wife wrote a public letter lamenting that after "alifetime of service to Our Lord and His church, we no longer wantto remain members of the Anglican Church of Australia".

In response to a letter from one of Heinrich's supporters, theAnglican Primate of Australia, Dr Phillip Aspinall, has defendedMunro's right to express "his personal view, as indeed each one ofus has" but added: "The gravest injustice occurred when a priestsexually assaulted a 14-year-old child. Surely no one in the year2006 would say this is acceptable. That was the decision of thediocesan tribunal. I acted on its clear finding andrecommendation."

Shearman maintains his silence on the case. He has disputed thechurch's apology and has said there are inaccuracies in Heinrich'sversion of events but has refused to elaborate and declined to beinterview by the Herald.

Approaching his 81st year, he remains active in his localQueensland parish and says he has been heartened by support fromwithin and outside his church community.

Briggs ponders the psychology of Shearman. "He is theinteresting person. He was writing to her every day. What wasdriving him? I think it must be more than an unhappy marriage. Washe in love with romance, for example, because those letters weresome of the most convincing love letters I have seen. Of course, hedid leave his wife to marry her but it was the intervention of thechurch that stopped it and one senses that had it not intervenedthey could have lived happily ever after."

Far from putting the past behind her Heinrich is consideringwriting about it and is seeking a publisher.

"Perhaps I like turning the screws. I need a publisher, I wantpeople to understand how he was able to get into my head andobviously didn't mean anything by it. It's an explanation for somepeople and a warning for other people."

One of Heinrich's supporters is Lindy Reid, whose mother was avictim of sexual abuse as a child.

Prompted by the screening of Australian Story, shecontacted Heinrich and has found in her quiet "fellowship",although the pair met only recently. A year ago Reid approached theNSW Government to revoke Shearman's Order of British Empire.

"Survivors help other survivors to heal. I admire Beth for hercourage and her refusal to give in or give up," Reid says. "She isan inspiring role model for survivors of child sex abuse and Ithink this is very important, especially for those who are sodamaged they are not able to pursue restorative justice. I hopethat Beth's story will encourage others to seek support for theirhealing."

Does Heinrich go to church?

"Heaven forbid, no. I wouldn't trust any of them," she says. "Ithink the church is too full of hypocrisy. If I had been handled inthe way Christ said victims should be handled, none of the ensuing11 years [after the mediation with Hollingworth] would havehappened. Didn't Christ say suffer the little children to come tome? They chose to close ranks and blame the victim."

What does she believe in these days?

"The earth mother. I say it flippantly, but it's the goodness inpeople, and if you find you are unlucky in life then that is justtoo bad."


1954 Beth Heinrich starts boarding at St John'sHostel, Forbes.

1955 Sexual relationship starts between29-year-old Donald Shearman and Heinrich, 14.

1956 Shearman expels Heinrich from hostel.

1958 Start of an unhappy and violentmarriage.

1977 Shearman visits Forbes and arranges tomeet Heinrich, 21 years after last seeing her. An on-again,off-again relationship starts.

1984 Shearman leaves Grafton, his wife and hispost as bishop to live in Wagga with Heinrich. He returns to hiswife 12 days later. Heinrich later miscarries his child.

1994 Heinrich first complains about Shearman tothe Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth.

1995 Hollingworth organises a mediation withhimself, Heinrich and Shearman. Shearman refuses to sign a letterof apology. Hollingworth rules that Shearman should continuepreaching.

2001 Hollingworth appointedgovernor-general.

February 18, 2002 Hollingworth appears onAustralian Story.

February 19, 2002 Archbishop Phillip Aspinallannounces an inquiry into sex abuse allegations against the churchin Brisbane. He apologises to victims.

March 1, 2002 Hollingworth "unreservedlyapologises" for claiming he did not believe Heinrich was abused asa 14-year-old.

2003 Hollingworth resigns after inquiry findshe acted unfairly in dealing with some complaints of sexual abuseand let a known pedophile continue as a priest.

2004 Shearman stripped of his holy orders.

August 2006 The church issues a formal apologyto Heinrich, paying her $100,000 in compensation.


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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia