Abuse diocese puts community first

Annette Blackwell

The Anglican diocese that controlled a NSW home where children were horribly abused had a stark choice: should it protect the beaten and broken victims or the pillars of its Christian community?

It chose the community, those who afforded it time and money to keep its parishes afloat and good works happening in its schools, churches and homes across northern NSW.

The land and buildings which include Lismore's now surely notorious North Coast Children's Home are worth about $200 million according to evidence presented to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

An old police station on the site, next to St Andrew's Church, was purchased with good intention by a parish committee in 1936, the commission was told, to house abandoned children.

But when former resident Tommy Campion revealed to diocesan authorities his anguished tale of what sometimes went on in the home there was shock and denial back in Grafton.

Campion's repeated emotional plea that "these were little kids" as he told of savage beatings and sexual abuse penetrated the walls of the righteous.

The response, though, was underwhelming.

The protestant community in Grafton seems close. One could well imagine the conversations at the "dinner parties with a bit of red wine" that Pat Comben, former diocesan registrar, touched on in his evidence to the commission.

When asked at the inquiry whether he had formally informed the diocesan committee of an abuse matter separate to Campion's concerns, Comben said he expected they got the news anyway.

"We were close enough," he explained. "We all lived next door to each other."

No doubt at certain of their polite gatherings there was talk too of the Lismore scandal.

Comben has since relinquished holy orders and spearheaded the church's legal response to a group claim by 42 former residents of the North Coast Children's Home.

As bishops and priests appearing before the commission tried to explain why victims were told "not a penny more" or offered modest ex-gratia payments, its chair, Justice Peter McClellan, often asked if thought had been given to the impact on people who had suffered so appallingly.

It hadn't.

A church media release in 2006 called the claims an affront to all the good people of Lismore and suggested the suffering was exaggerated. Comben, with a nod from Bishop Keith Slater, put the release together based on what the community was telling him - that nothing of the sort being alleged at the home had happened.

Of 42 known victims, however, he spoke only to one.

An apology was all some wanted.

The importance of hearing the word `sorry' by the abused can't be underestimated, according to experts called before Justice McClellan in evidence.

Certainly Tommy Campion wanted an apology and an acknowledgement that the church had a duty of care to the home's children. Yet for years the diocese instead prioritised its duty of care in favour of those in the community in a position to return its support.

When the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Dr Phillip Aspinall, made a statement to the commission he told of a conversation with the then chancellor of the Grafton Diocese.

It was about giving Campion a copy of the constitution of the children's home.

It turns out the documents would have identified management committee members including one still-living elderly parishioner.

Aspinall said the chancellor told him "the Diocese of Grafton, the Church, would not `throw her to the wolves'".

They were afraid Campion would take her to court.

The primate, who is also Archbishop of Brisbane assured the chancellor that having talked with Campion, legal action wasn't likely.

But that wasn't how Grafton saw it.

After media stories about the abuse they feared people would look for millions of dollars. The view was that church mice were better off than the Lismore parish; all it had was property.

Apparently, it didn't cross anyone's mind that a cash-strapped diocese could sell some of the assets endowed by generous now deceased parishioners to help mend shattered lives.

The primate also shed light on Anglican culture. His response when Simon Harrison, solicitor for the 42 claimants, approach him asking that Brisbane Diocese contribute to a fund for victims was "no".

"The reason I take that view is that members of the Church in Brisbane donate funds to support the charitable and other work of the Diocese of Brisbane," he said.

Each diocese is responsible to meet its own obligations to the point that Aspinall "could not recall a single instance where any diocese has directed its funds to settle abuse claims which are the responsibility of another diocese".

From the witness box, he also helpfully explained why selling off assets had not entered the equation in Grafton.

Church members there and elsewhere would take a "dim view", he said.

Even though Grafton had dipped into its own investment fund, taking out a $12 million unsecured loan to build a private girl's school not expected to make a profit, double dipping for abuse victims was seemingly unimaginable.

A settlement payment to some survivors, in fact, was kept low because Grafton was paying off the loan. It did ask other dioceses for help with that but only two came on board.

As the commission wound down for the day of Aspinall's appearance, there was some comforting news.

He said he hoped the Royal Commission would recommend a mandatory compensation scheme with independent determinations so Anglican dioceses are pushed into doing what Christ surely would have done.