Anglican Victims Get Their Fair Hearing At Last


The third public hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, an investigation into the North Coast Children's Home in Lismore, began yesterday. The home, run by the Anglican Church Diocese of Grafton, was the location of acts of unspeakable depravity towards children for around 40 years, from 1944 until 1985.

Children at the home were raped and beaten by staff and clergy. Others were whipped or caned until they bled — often in view of other children, who were prevented from helping their fellows. Former residents have told the commission they had to steal to make up for a lack of food and clothing. Priests performed "cleansing rituals" on the boys, with one victim, who could not be named, saying:

"I remember going to the rectory and I would be made to lie naked on the floor and the minister would put this stuff on my chest like a cross and then he would lick it off, right down to my genitals."

As with the other hearings of the commission, its purpose is not to investigate the abuse that occurred at the home, although giving a public hearing to victims is the commission's most important achievement in the short term. Rather it will, in the words of Gail Furness SC, investigate "how claims of historic child sexual abuse are handled."

In particular, this hearing will examine the legal and financial settlements made with victims, and the way the Diocese allegedly retreated from responsibility after the extent of the abuse became known.

One specific Anglican clergyman who worked at the home, Reverend Allan Kitchingman, was convicted in 1968 of indecent assault, but was given only a two-year good behaviour bond. In 2002 he was convicted of a further five charges of indecent assault upon boys at the home. The commission will examine the knowledge members of the Anglican hierarchy had about Kitchingman's prior conviction when they allowed him to stay in the Diocese, and whether they took any steps to discipline him after the 2002 conviction.

It appears they did not from Furness' opening statement, and there will undoubtedly be serious examination of the standards and policies of the Anglican Church in this area, as was the case with the second public hearing into the YMCA.

In 2007, a group of 41 claimants, over half of whom said they had been abused at the home, settled with the Anglican Diocese for a "compassionate payout" of $825,000. After court fees, the average amount left for victims was only around $10,000 each, although sums varied depending case-by-case. By contrast, CH, one of the victims of Reverend Kitchingman, settled in a separate case for $290,000. The commission will examine the discrepancies in the various amounts and how the Anglican Church conducted itself towards claimants.

One victim, photographer Tommy Campion, has publicly campaigned to bring what happened at the home to light for some years. He suffered greatly, as did his sister, who was also at the home. He did not report the abuse to anyone for 45 years, but gave courageous evidence yesterday.

Campion was one of the "post-group claimants" who rejected the Diocese's offer of around $20,000 in the settlement, instead pushing for a payout of $75,000 according to the "pastoral care and assistance package", adopted in 2005.

He told the commission that his dealings with the Anglican Church, while initially positive, quickly became routed through lawyers. "I was very upset at how the Church was dealing with it. I didn't feel that it was right," he said. Campion also alleged that Reverend Pat Comben, the then-registrar of the Diocese of Grafton who was administering the claims, during settlement negotiations with Campion's lawyer said of the victims, "at least they had a roof over their heads".

Campion also had a poor response from Anglican Bishop Keith Slater (who will appear to give evidence later in the hearing). He wrote to Campion about his decision to press on for a more substantial claim, saying "[W]hat you are now asking in relation to a Care Package would actually be a betrayal of all those whom you encouraged to make a claim with you through your lawyer."

The structure of the Anglican Church and how it has hindered the ability of victims to achieve justice will also come under examination. Many senior Anglican clergy will front the commission to account for their actions: The Anglican Primate of Australia, The Most Rev Dr Phillip Aspinall, will appear, as will Archbishop Roger Herft of Perth. Herft was previously Bishop of Newcastle, and will give evidence regarding Rev Kitchingman.

How they present themselves will significantly influence the ongoing attitude of the commission and public to the Anglican Church; the recent Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into child abuse was utterly scathing in its assessment of recalcitrant senior clergy, including Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne and Cardinal Archbishop George Pell. The respected religion journalist Stephen Crittenden, writing on the inquiry for Crikey this week, went so far as to say that "Catholic clerical culture is a machine that produces sick people".

As the commission rolls on, the extent of its work and task are starting to crystallise. Justice Peter McClellan, who has been a paragon of professionalism and sensitivity during the commission, spoke to the 13th Australasian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect in Melbourne earlier this month and said that resources remained a problem:

"Although there are some institutions which by reason of well-known problems we must examine there will be others where abuse is reported, but having regard to our resources, both of people and time, we will be unable to look at."

This is compounded by a further two factors: that the interim report for the commission is due mid-way through next year, and the desires of the victims of individual case studies for justice. McClelland said the commission would indicate the time-frame it would need to complete its work next year, when the report was filed, but that they would report to government on each case study or public hearing in an ad-hoc way.

"In this way we do what we can to be fair to those who have an interest in these issues and in particular people who may be criticised in a report, and allow institutions to respond at an early date to problems which we identify," he said at the ACCAN conference.

The results of the recent report, Betrayal of Trust, from the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into child abuse, show how crucial it is for the commission to report quickly. A further 135 allegations were referred to Victoria Police's Task Force SANO as a result of the Victorian inquiry, which ran for 18 months and did not have investigative powers, unlike the commission. Given the sheer volume of calls, statements and hearings the commission is receiving, the number referrals to police from a three to five year national level inquiry is potentially enormous.

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