The aftermath of the Child Abuse Royal Commission into the Diocese of Newcastle is quite devastating for the Diocese as a whole and for some individuals in particular. That such abuse could have been perpetrated for so long, and by so many, does indeed beggar belief.
A significant focus of the Commission was the role of St John’s Theological College Morpeth. This focus is reflected in the Commission’s findings and in perceptions that now prevail in the Diocese and perhaps in the mind of the general public.
My interest is generated by my years as a student (1963-65), Vice Principal (1973-76), by my long term friendship with many staff members and the emails I receive from student contemporaries of both periods.
I see no evidence that justifies a perception that the College was somehow the womb in which a paedophile ring was nurtured. It is tragically the case that many clergy who have since been shown to be abusers of children were at one time students of the College. But where is the evidence that the College turned a blind eye, or much worse, nurtured this culture, presumably with the tacit knowledge of staff and or members of the College management? I do not believe there is any evidence.
In the 1960s the College was the seminary of choice not simply for students of NSW regional Dioceses, but for students from Melbourne, Brisbane, Rockhampton, Tasmania, Perth and Adelaide. I was myself a student for the Diocese of Armidale.
It seems to me that two issues need to be addressed which have nothing to do with the College. The first relates to how students are selected. While no selection process can ever be expected to be foolproof, it is reasonable to assume many whose malevolent behaviour became manifest later should have been weeded out in the selection process. Where does responsibility for selection reside? The College was not responsible for selection; this was the responsibility of Dioceses. The only students for whom selection was the College’s responsibility were independent students. I am unaware of any in that category who later were shown to be paedophiles. As a student and later as a staff member I was not aware of aberrant sexual behaviour, but on several occasions, as a staff member, it was my experience that Diocesan Bishops did not want to hear negative reports of their students on other issues. On one occasion it was my difficult duty to recommend to a bishop that all four of his students have their ordinations deferred or cancelled. The recommendation was not accepted, causing the Diocese concerned considerable deferred grief. As parents often blame a school for their children’s behaviour rather than accept their responsibility, so Bishops would sometimes choose to blame the College rather than face deficiencies in their students. It seems convenient now to focus on the College rather than face wider issues
The second issue is how a clique of Anglo-Catholic clergy and lay people, not representative of the Diocese as a whole, could become so powerful. This bears upon the issue of how Bishops are appointed. It is clear that in the Diocese of Newcastle this powerful clique held sway across several episcopates and that what has become known as a paedophile ring was endemic within it, although not necessarily embracing all of it.
Historically, the Diocese of Newcastle considers itself a child of the Oxford Movement, the Tractarians, a movement later known as Anglo- Catholicism. In the early 20th century Anglo-Catholicism was greatly influenced by Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford. Gore, whose piety was deeply seeped in a sacramental life, considered any piety to be useless unless it poured itself out in love for the world and its transformation, through intellectual engagement and a commitment to social justice. This combination of holiness and engagement can be clearly seen in the life of Father Gerard Tucker who founded the Brotherhood of St Lawrence in Newcastle before moving back to Melbourne. It can also be seen in the life and ministries of Fathers Bill Childs, Bill Brown and Gordon Coad who so colourfully and effectively reflected the life of the Diocese of Newcastle in the 1960s, the period in which the Royal Commission investigation of the Diocese begins.
The Anglo-Catholic clique that developed since the episcopate of Bishop Ian Shevill (1973-1977), appears to have regressed into a club of priestly ecclesiastical ritual, energised by each other’s company and in opposition to Sydney’s evangelicalism; rather than being energised and empowered through an outward looking and inclusive engagement with the world. Such an engagement as demonstrated by Childs, Brown and Coad could be (perhaps should be) inherently evangelistic as well as socially transformative.
The authoritarian nature of this clique was clearly demonstrated in the speech given by Bishop Shevill to his first Newcastle synod in which, presumably feeling rebuffed by the afore mentioned priests together with his Dean, John Falkingham and the Acting Principal of St John’s Morpeth, George Browning, he told the synod they could either submit to his authority or he would retire to his study and write books.
This controlling streak was accentuated through implied superiority. This can be illustrated by a sermon delivered by Peter Rushton at the celebration of a new priest’s first mass when he made the extraordinary claim that ordination effected an ontological change that set the young man apart from his congregation. Such an unbalanced claim misses the fundamental point that ordination gifts the ordinand with a new set of relationships within the body of Christ which require not so much the honouring of the priest by the congregation, but the honouring of the congregation by the priest. When the latter occurs, the former is a side product and experienced as a wonderful gift, not the other way around.
From the outset the Church has been beset by cliques (1Cor. 3:4). They are anathema to the body of Christ which relies upon and is enriched by the engagement of difference. A clique is by definition a self referencing and self authenticating group. Cliques are more open to serious human malfunction because they are not referenced by the standards of others. There are plenty of other more significant political, economic and religious cliques threatening the contemporary world that can be the attention of future blogs.
In the meantime the Diocese of Newcastle has much to offer the wider Church and the world if it can find a new Bishop in the Anglo-Catholic tradition who will have the intellectual capacity, the moral courage, and the personal holiness to lead the Diocese into a future of transformative engagement. Finding such a person who of necessity will need to lead a life of humility and sacrifice deserves the prayers of all.