IAN KIRKWOOD: Royal Commission lances a boil on the community's conscience

SURVIVOR: The Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, giving evidence on the 16th and final day of Royal Commission's hearing into the Anglican diocese.
SURVIVOR: The Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, giving evidence on the 16th and final day of Royal Commission's hearing into the Anglican diocese.

WATCHING and reporting on the Royal Commission’s hearings in the Catholic and Anglican churches in Newcastle. I felt as if I was watching the lancing and cleaning of a pair of massive, ulcerating boils.

For a while, the bandages had kept the internal mess hidden, but when the evidence came gushing out, it was hard to believe that all of this had been kept behind closed doors, for so long, and by people whose main role in life – as leaders of a church – is to instruct others into how they should live their lives.

It’s not as though we are talking about an uneducated and impoverished criminal class whose activities can be excused because they knew no better and could not be expected to do any better.

No. In the Anglican hearing, especially, we are talking about an organisation that was the definition of Establishment.

Christ Church Cathedral, as we have been regularly reminded, has been the holiest of holy grounds in Newcastle Anglicanism, a place where the great and good of this region go to pray to their God, and to see and be seen in a social whirl of lacquered hair, pressed suits and air kisses. But like the Catholic cathedral down on the flats at Newcastle West, it has also been a haven for sexual offenders of the worst order.

For a while there, this week, I felt some sympathy for the disgraced and defrocked former dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence. His accuser, code-named CKH, says in his own evidence that he was 16 the first time Lawrence importuned him sexually. On that reading, some would say that whatever Lawrence did with, or to, CKH, it was not paedophilia, if paedophilia is classified as sex with a child before puberty.

I’d call him a hebephile – a lover of youth – but even if Lawrence’s sexual behaviour is not strictly illegal under current law, it was wrong because of the incredible power imbalance that exists between a person in authority, whether they are a priest or a professor, and someone younger and less experienced in the not-always-straightforward ways of the world.

On Thursday we heard from one formerly callow youth, the Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, who said he had “naively” believed two prominent Newcastle clerics were hoping to educate him spiritually when they invited him to dinner and took him to the movies. Instead, he found himself in the dark at Tower Cinemas with a bishop on one side of him and a canon on the other, both with their hands on his groin, as they watched an R-rated movie about an African American slave fighting off the sexual advances of a white trader.

Later, as one of the two tried to force himself on Thompson again, he was told that if he wanted to get into the ministry, he “had to have a relationship” with one of these older clerics. Again, given that Thompson was 19, this was not paedophilia, but it was reprehensible behaviour for a minister who would then hop into the pulpit to dispense wisdom and blessings in the supposed name of a universal creator.

I can understand why Lawrence is still popular at Christ Church, but history will render its verdict, and it will not be kind.

It must be almost impossible for Thompson, or any outsider, to come into a community like this and win instant support. But as a survivor himself, Thompson is the right leader at the right time to help his church heal its wounds. God knows that both he and his Catholic counterpart Bill Wright still have their work cut out for them.

This story Saving the young from dark deeds in high places first appeared on Newcastle Herald.