Sins of Omission
A Priest Convicted of Child Sex Abuse Was Forgiven His Crime by the Church
By Tony Koch
November 11, 2006
God's special concern to protect the vulnerable and the defenceless is to shine through the life of the church. So if it ever came about that the weak or vulnerable are harmed by the actions of the church, it is a fundamental betrayal of justice, of God and the gospel of Christ. Dealing with this matter in the life of the church, justly and with care for the most vulnerable, goes to the heart of God's mission.
- Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, presidential address to the synod of the Brisbane diocese, June 2002
WHETHER religious leaders - in this case in the Anglican Church - have abandoned the belief that forgiving the sin of child sexual abuse also forgives the crime that was perpetrated was thrown into grave doubt in the Brisbane District Court this week. The conviction and jailing of Anglican priest Robert Sharwood for the abuse of a boy beginning in 1974 when the child was 13 demonstrated yet again that although senior church leaders knew Sharwood had admitted the crime, it was not reported to police in almost three decades.
Instead, Sharwood was appointed to a leading Brisbane boys school, the Anglican Grammar School (Churchie), where he remained as chaplain for 18 years until the victim blew the whistle in 2002.
Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, who as Primate of Australia is the leader of the nation's Anglican Church, took office in 2002, at a time when abuse of children by clergy was a paramount issue.
His predecessor, (then governor-general) Peter Hollingworth, was embroiled in accusations of covering up sexual abuse accusations within his church, and they eventually brought him down in disgrace from his vice-regal post.
A senior woman journalist in a rural Queensland city kick-started Hollingworth's downfall with a series of stories accusing him and the church of failing to address the sex abuse of children.
That journalist and her husband, devoted Anglican churchgoers who tithed their income to the church from the day they were married, have been tormented by the church since that time.
It was the interviews she conducted, the court cases she attended, the diligent research she undertook that brought the journalist to address her own problems: the inexplicable mood changes of her husband and his inability to participate in normal intimacy.
She loved him and supported him when his spirit almost gave out: through his psychiatric assistance and his lows so deep that he contemplated suicide. The dedicated wife recognised in him the signs she had seen in those she interviewed, and knew in her heart that he had been a victim of abuse.
It took years of painstaking inquiry to get him to admit the horrors he had endured when a priest trusted by his devoutly religious family began to groom him as a victim. He succeeded, mainly because the child was unworldly, frightened and had nowhere to complain.
It transpires that both his parents knew at different times that the abuse had occurred - his mother was a witness to one incident - yet even the parents could not discuss it with each other, such was their devotion to the church and their disbelief that it was occurring.
When Judge Fleur Kingham was considering the sentence for Sharwood on Thursday, the victim's impact statement told how the abuse and subsequent cover-up had shaken his faith.
"These consequences have been a source of great discouragement to me because I judge I am unable to live up to the high behavioural ideals I hold as a Christian," he wrote. "This is more than my personal 'thorn in the flesh', as St Paul would term it, because it was the result of actions perpetrated on me by another. That is, I was robbed of the opportunity to order my own life.
"While I have maintained a staunch faith in God, I have suffered a loss of meaning in relation to my faith. It has been difficult to maintain a regular pattern of prayer and Bible reading when God seems irrelevant to daily life."
He wrote that counselling by his family doctor, two psychologists and a consultant psychiatrist had enabled him to recognise that the responsibility and blame lay completely with the abuser, Sharwood.
"For many years following the abuse, which occurred from 1974 to 1976, I had believed I was unaffected by it," he wrote. "However, as is frequently the case, the traumatic events of those years returned to haunt me in my early 40s.
"This was triggered, I believe, by being in close proximity to Sharwood during a week-long music school in January 2002, where he was the course chaplain.
"In 2002 my eldest son was the same age as I was when the abuse began, and I began to realise the effects that the abuse had had on me and my behaviours throughout my adult life."
Central to the anxiety suffered by the victim and his wife was their grappling with the criminal court case when it was looming, and taking on the church in civil proceedings in which the victim sought court approval to have the time extended for him to lodge a compensation claim.
They lost the case and had costs of $20,000 awarded against them, but that was overturned on appeal. Then came the serious decision: to pursue more expensive litigation or go through a mediation process with the church and arrive at a compensation figure.
A moderate $50,000 amount was settled on eventually, with the church undertaking to pay legal and medical costs, including counselling for the next five years.
The victim had sought more than $500,000 to cover his loss of income, pain and suffering and other damages.
"We settled because we were forced to, because what we risked was enormous court costs," he said. "Very few people seemed keen to assist.
"The Queensland Attorney-General has the legislative power to grant special leave to protect the civil right of a person like me who is forced to wait until the end of a criminal hearing to proceed.
"On October 24, 2005, I wrote to attorney-general Linda Lavarch, setting out the circumstances facing me in relation to the Personal Injuries Proceedings Act.
"I told her the Director of Public Prosecutions had asked me to delay the civil action until after the criminal case (against Sharwood) to protect the criminal case, and I agreed.
"And that was another reason why we had to settle with the church for an unsatisfactory amount -- because Ms Lavarch did not even reply to my letter."
Lavarch resigned from cabinet last month, announcing she was suffering from depression.
The victim says the criminal trial had been taxing, particularly having to undergo cross-examination for almost a day in-camera.
"Sharwood's defence seemed to be based on an accusation that I was pushed into complaining by my wife who was heavily involved in reporting sex-abuse trials at the time," he says. "But that was not so. I made up my own mind. It took me a while to come to the decision."
Particularly galling to the victim and his wife was that Sharwood gave them communion at their wedding.
He was assisting the Tom Hood, who wrote to Aspinall in 2002 asking for Sharwood to be reinstated as a priest. Hood knew Sharwood had sexually abused the groom when he was a 13-year-old boy, yet he allowed him to co-celebrate the wedding and give the couple communion.
Hood says the letter he wrote was not something he regretted. He says he was aware that Sharwood had been sacked from Churchie because of the allegation, which Hood knew about, but it was not for him to volunteer that information to the police.
"I did not feel it was up to me to stick my nose in," Hood says. "It never crossed my mind to go to the police.
"I thought the school (Churchie) were just looking after themselves when they dismissed him. There had been no other incident I knew of, and it was very difficult for him (Sharwood)."
The victim also questioned why the Anglican Church had allowed Sharwood to stay in the choir in Brisbane, and whether it was appropriate for him to do so, given the admissions of abuse and the opportunity he was being given to have further contact with young children.
In delivering her sentence, Kingham told Sharwood he had corrupted the teenager.
"You took advantage of and abused the trust the victim's family placed in an office-holder of the church," she said.
Kingham said there was no evidence given to the court that Sharwood had abused other children, although the court was not made aware that two other men had recently come forward to Aspinall's office and made allegations concerning sexual abuse by Sharwood when they were teenagers. Those allegations are being investigated by police.
The victim said he was satisfied with the two years and nine months sentence handed down to Sharwood, of which he has to serve one year.
"I don't suppose even one day in prison is very pleasant," he says. "I will have to move on now and start rebuilding my own life and my life with my wife and family and put all this behind me."
He says he is going to try to reconstruct his life, but it will take a lot to convince him that the church has yet accepted that it does not have the God-given right to forgive crimes - particularly crimes against innocent children.
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