June 14, 2004 | Jeff Wall

The church behaves badly – and the insurers continue to evade responsibility.

THE resignation of Ian George as Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide has been as messy as it has been necessary.
The allegations against Dr George are significantly more serious than those levelled against Peter Hollingworth that forced his resignation as Governor General a year ago.
Yet Peter Hollingworth has in many ways paid the higher price – his term as Governor General still had three years to run whereas Dr George was due to retire as Archbishop in a matter of weeks.
Notwithstanding all Ian George’s achievements in his long career he has departed the scene largely unwept, unhonoured and unsung. And the worst may still be ahead of him, for one of the allegations – that concerning the disgraceful Chaplain of St Peter’s College being “encouraged” to flee Australia after serious criminal claims were made against him – will no doubt be examined further by the authorities.
I am afraid I am unable to have much sympathy with Dr George. The report he commissioned has found a systemic pattern of appalling abuse of boys and girls by clergy, lay workers and others over a long period.
On the basis of the Report, Dr George in his 13 year tenure as Archbishop handled some of the matters that were drawn to his attention with gross inadequacy and neglect.
The one which appalled me most of all was not the infamous St Peter’s College incident.
Shortly after Dr George took up office as Archbishop, one of his Priests was arrested on serious charges of gross indecency towards two boys. If the mother of the boys has been truthful, then his statement to her that (the Priest) was “just trying to be one of the boys” is absolutely disgraceful.
What is not in dispute is that Dr George allowed the Priest to remain on duty in his parish while the charges were being heard, and told the parish church wardens to support the Priest at his court appearances. Absolutely inexcusable.
But Dr George did not resign of his own volition. He only did so after the Acting Premier of South Australia called on him to do so, and after he was effectively told to go by his Diocesan Council (the Diocese’s Cabinet or Board of Directors).
Even then he did so without the dignity Peter Hollingworth mustered when he resigned as Governor General. A written statement handed out by a spokesperson is just not good enough.
Even worse, his comment to the waiting media at church yesterday (Sunday) “no comment, no comment, no comment, no comment. Just go away” is not good enough. In his career, Dr George was something of a church “media tart” – how times change?
So the name of the Church has been badly sullied once again. The Diocese of Adelaide has let down its people, and its most vulnerable in particular.
But there is one group in the Adelaide Diocese, and other Dioceses, and other Churches, that continues to evade any responsibility whatsoever. It is high time this group was brought to public account as well.
I refer to the insurance companies – the companies that insure churches, and other entities, with respect to claims for damages, compensation etc.
This is one area where what happened in the Diocese of Brisbane, and the Diocese of Adelaide, is worryingly similar.
It is apparent that the leadership of both Dioceses – including Dr Hollingworth and Dr George – was under some very firm “riding instructions” instructions by their respective insurers.
It was the instructions the Diocese of Brisbane’s insurers gave in regard to claims arising from the abominable behaviour of a teacher at a church girls school in Toowoomba that really brought the whole issue of how the church handles abuse claims to prominence.
It is apparent that the instructions, which may broadly be described as being “admit nothing, deny everything”, given to the Diocese of Adelaide were the same.
Even though the Judge in the Toowoomba compensation cases rightly attacked the approach of the Church, there ought to have been greater prominence given to the attitude of the church’s insurers.
In Brisbane, Adelaide, and almost certainly elsewhere, church hierarchy and that of church schools, were warned that if they did not follow the instructions of insurers, then they risked voiding their policies – exposing the churches to possible financial ruin.
That does not justify or excuse in any way the gross mishandling of abuse claims, over a long period, by the Anglican Church, or other Churches.
But the blame needs to be shared fairly – and so far the media has allowed insurance companies to escape any blame or responsibility whatsoever.
To his considerable credit, one of the first actions of the current Archbishop of Brisbane, Dr Phillip Aspinall, was to put in place the Diocese’s own litigation advisory committee to determine how abuse claims etc are handled – and it is a committee that has already “restored the balance” in doing so.
The interests of genuine victims are now paramount, not the interests of the church’s finances, or its insurers.
Dr George had to go, and there is more pain ahead for the Diocese of Adelaide.
But isn’t it about time the insurers, and lawyers, owned up for their manifest failures as well?

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:57 am | Comments Off on The church behaves badly – and the insurers continue to evade responsibility. |
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