June 21, 2004 | Jeff Wall

The Anglican Church is about to face a significant credibility test – will it measure up?

THE credibility of the commitment by the Anglican Church to dealing resolutely with the mishandling of sex abuse issues over many decades is about to be put to a significant test.
The allegations against the former Archbishop of Adelaide, Dr Ian George, cannot be allowed to die forever with his forced resignation just six weeks from his planned retirement date.
They are the most serious allegations to be made against a Church Leader in recent history, significantly more serious that those that brought an end to the Vice Regal service of Dr Peter Hollingworth.
At best, the claims against Dr George amount to grave errors of judgement. At worst they might amount to misconduct that invites the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
But what the allegations must do is be subject to the Anglican Church’s own test of the standards it demands from its clergy – including its Archbishops and Bishops.
At the present time, the former Bishop of Grafton, Donald Shearman, is before a Church Tribunal in the Diocese of Brisbane as a result of a complaint of his association with an underage girl in his care at a Church Hostel 48 years ago.
This Tribunal has been set up notwithstanding the fact that Bishop Shearman resumed his liaison with the complainant when she was an adult, and the fact that his resignation as Bishop of Grafton 20 years ago was a result of the complainant pursuing the allegations against him with Church authorities.
An attempt by Bishop Shearman to “resign” his Holy Orders, rendering the Tribunal powerless, was denied by the Anglican Primate, Dr Peter Carnley, early this year.
The tribunal is being asked to carry out the quaintly named practice of “defrocking” Bishop Shearman – an act that would remove him completely from Holy Orders.
It would seem that the acting head of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Adelaide, Archdeacon John Collas, is unaware of the fact that the process of ending a priest’s Holy Orders does not automatically follow his or her retirement or resignation.
In the “Weekend Australian” the Archdeacon sought to distance the Church from his former Archbishop by saying that Dr George is now a “private citizen”.
That is palpably false. Unless, of course, Dr George has been allowed to vacate his Holy Orders in an extraordinarily brief period. If that is so, then whoever allowed him to take this course has behaved appallingly.
But I suspect that Dr George remains a Bishop and Priest. He may now be a “private citizen” in the sense that he is no longer employed by the Church but he remains an ordained Bishop, and therefore subject to the Church’s jurisdiction.
The Anglican Church has apologised for its appallingly bad handling of sex abuse issues in the Adelaide Diocese and its gross neglect of victims in particular. The criminal process involving former priests, youth workers and others has begun.
But the response by the Diocese will fall short of the standards that society demands, and its own people are entitled to expect, until it subjects Dr George’s behaviour as Archbishop to the rigours of its disciplinary system.
Since his resignation, Dr George has not responded in any satisfactory way to the serious allegations made against him in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry he appointed, and, more worryingly, his correspondence with the disgraced School Chaplain, Rev John Mountford, who is now being sought by the SA Police.
Even Archdeacon Collas was moved to describe one particular letter from Dr George to Mountford as leaving him: “gobsmacked would be the right word, I’m absolutely shocked.”
There are other findings of the Inquiry with regard to the former Archbishop that demand further probing by the Church, but the most troubling findings relate to who encouraged Mountford to flee Australia the very day he met with Dr George and the Principal of St Peters College – the day after allegations of the sexual abuse of a school student were raised.
Allied to this is the letter Dr George allegedly wrote to Mountford a year later which, if genuine, is both disgusting and unacceptable in the extreme.
The Anglican Church, along with other churches and state and community groups, has failed young people badly over a long period of time. That failure will only be truly redeemed when the perpetrators are brought to justice and those who have failed to give victims the support and assurance they deserve are held to account as well.
It won’t be redeemed until anyone in authority who covered up gross misconduct and criminal behaviour is dealt with resolutely as well.
Dr Ian George had a distinguished career in many areas. He was a forceful advocate for equality for women in the church, for reconciliation and for the compassionate treatment of refugees.
That may be argued in mitigation, but it in no way lessens the need for the grave allegations made against him to be examined by the processes the Church itself has in place.
Until that happens, apologies, criminal charges, compensation, and new protocols will be a less than wholly adequate response to appalling revelations that the Church has, once again, let down badly those most entitled to expect its protection and care.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 5:20 pm | Comments Off on The Anglican Church is about to face a significant credibility test – will it measure up? |
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