The Power of Her Fragile Heart
Sydney Morning Herald [Australia]
December 9, 2006
Beth Heinrich's claims of sexual abuse brought down a governor-general. But it was the betrayal by a man she loved that tore her life apart, writes Linda Morris.
Advertisement There are times of stress and moments of quiet when Beth Heinrich catches herself reciting an intimate prayer her one-time lover, a married member of the Anglican clergy, composed for her.
The woman at the centre of the Anglican Church's most notorious modern abuse scandal has just been asked whether she is getting on with her life.
She wonders out loud whether people prefer the truth or a sanitised version of the story, that of a victim making the best of it and moving on. Then she makes it clear that her past is forever her present.
"It's really, really scary to find myself saying 'Loving Father, Donald and I thank you', and I say to myself, 'What the f--- am I doing?"'
In August, Heinrich was paid $100,000 in compensation for sexual abuse she claims began in 1954 when she was a teenage schoolgirl in the care of the Reverend Donald Shearman in the western NSW town of Forbes.
Padre Shearman, as he was called, was the upstanding, charismatic and married assistant priest of St John's and warden of the church hostel who went on to become the youngest bishop in the Australian Anglican Church.
She was 14, the eldest daughter of a farmer and former shire councillor.
"Initially, he kissed me. There was a whole lot of grooming before that, telling me in confidence that his marriage was a mistake and I was the only one with any style, giving me chocolates, presents in my locker, alcohol to drink, exposing a child to the secrets of adult life."
One summer evening Shearman got Heinrich and her classmates to bring blankets to the hostel's common room to listen to a gramophone recording of The Snow Goose.
"We were all on the floor in our pyjamas, like sardines, and I was with another girl and he came and squashed himself between me and the other girl. And so under cover of semi-darkness and under the cover of the rugs and in a room full of people what could I do? Yell out that Padre's got his hands on me?"
Heinrich says it was the start of two years of sexual contact with Shearman, before he expelled her from the hostel, telling her parents she was promiscuous with boys.
But it wasn't the end of the affair. She married a farmer and had five children. Twenty-one years after that teenage encounter she turned to Shearman, by then a bishop, to escape her unhappy marriage. The pair met again and seven years later, in 1984, he left his wife and six children to join Heinrich but returned to his family 12 days later.
In the church's frank formal letter of apology to Heinrich in August, the Bishop of Bathurst, Richard Hurford, said the church apologised unreservedly for Shearman's "sexual abuse and moral corruption of a minor".
"Rev Shearman vilified his victim, lied to others, including her parents, expelled her, truncated her education and initiated the rumour that she was promiscuous," the letter says.
"The long-term effects of this abuse and corruption were to cause profound and lasting damage to the schoolgirl's emotional, psychological and spiritual development throughout her adult life. The diocese abhors sexual abuse and regrets deeply your pain and suffering caused by this shameful behaviour."
But wounds don't always heal. Heinrich has moved on, but then again she hasn't.
"In a way I'm still waiting for Donald Shearman to come back. I still keep saying the prayer he put together for us, he's so far in my head and it's really scary but I'm the world's best pretender. That's the way I coped when I was sent home in disgrace and I had to shut down.
"He stole my parent's pride in me and I expected him to come back and keep his promises."
Even now, her family life is complicated. She is distant from two daughters, and a son, Paul, died of leukaemia. They were the children of a rocky marriage Heinrich says she entered six weeks after she heard Shearman's wife had become pregnant.
"I put up with an [unhappy marriage] because I thought I deserved it because God was punishing me because I had been wicked with Shearman."
In 1995, bitter that Shearman hadn't come to see her dying son, she met Peter Hollingworth, then the archbishop of Brisbane, and Shearman.
She had with her a letter of apology to her dead parents that she wanted Shearman to sign, together with an undertaking that, in retirement, he would no longer preach. She left empty-handed.
"I can't think what the worst thing was he did but one of the saddest things he did was steal my parents' pride in me. I was going to go to university and become a schoolteacher. I was in the same year as [the academic and feminist] Wendy McCarthy and look where she is.
"I came first in four subjects in the year before I was expelled. I got a special prize for commercial subjects, a first in English and in geography, and I remember my parents there seeing me getting my awards. In the darkened auditorium they were pleased with me, and look what happened nine months later? My mother had a nervous breakdown and they thought I was promiscuous."
Heinrich eventually went public with her allegations and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hollingworth, by then governor-general, can only muse on his fateful words to the ABC's Australian Story in 2002: "There was no suggestion of rape or anything like that, quite the contrary. My information is that it was the other way round." Outrage followed, and Hollingworth resigned.
Heinrich is unforgiving: "It's very nice if you can swan around and get the Australian taxpayers to pay for your lifestyle. Doesn't he have an office in Melbourne, a chauffeur and a car?"
The Heinrich case was significant for more than the downfall of a governor-general, says Dr Philip Gerber, the director of the Sydney Anglican diocese's professional standards unit. It forced the national church to face up to its responsibility to give equal hearing to victims and the accused. An episcopal commission was set up to improve the way allegations against diocesan bishops are dealt with.
"It taught the church we do have to respond, we can't put these matters to one side and they will go away," Gerber says. "We had to deal with the respondents but, more importantly, we had to deal with the complainants and the victims, and not assume that once they have told their story it's over."
If not for his misconduct, Gerber says, Shearman, the first Australian bishop to be defrocked, could have gone on to lead the church. "He was charismatic and popular. He was a great leader of people and, without this side of his character, he could have been an archbishop, even a primate."
Heinrich worked part-time as a nurse and volunteer gallery guide in her home town of Wagga Wagga before leaving recently on a trip to Europe.
But she can't or won't put the memories behind her. On her itinerary is Glasgow, to visit the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the rectory at St Bride's, from where she says Shearman once sent a letter saying, "hold fast, trust in a loving Father and pray, and I love you".
The letter is among a collection of love letters she kept from their affair which eventually became a "paper trail" of that encounter. For the church investigation in June 2004 she also produced a copy of an order of service that bears her name, with the surname crossed out. She believed she would eventually take his surname.
She has a pearl necklace which she says Shearman left in her locker at Christmas in 1954, and a gold cross she says he gave her for her 16th birthday.
"I kept them for him," she says.
Freda Briggs, emeritus professor of child development at the University of South Australia, who spoke to Heinrich several times after the 2004 tribunal hearing, says victims often form a lifelong attachment to the perpetrators of abuse.
"I don't think Beth ever left him emotionally. Most people don't understand that when you are sexually abused at puberty, as she was, it can have a disastrous effect on both social and emotional development.
"Children who have premature sexual relationships can remain stuck at the child level and can be controlled by the perpetrator of abuse almost indefinitely. It's about control, power and vulnerability. Beth didn't realise she had been abused. Beth genuinely believed he was going to marry her. The tragedy is that this is something her children could not understand, why this woman in her 60s couldn't get on with life."
Just before she left on her trip, Heinrich was angered by a report published in the University of Queensland's Law and Justice Journal by Howard Munro, dean of the university's St John's College.
Munro suggests Shearman's trial before an ecclesiastical tribunal was blighted because he was unrepresented before the tribunal and had no pro bono legal support.
Munro also suggests that Shearman was dealt with too harshly and says that, provided he was penitent, he should have been allowed to remain a bishop.
The condemnation of unworthy ministers, even their excommunication, he says, must only be invoked once admonition and repentance have been attempted and failed. Ecclesiastical law dating back to King James provided for the pardoning of defrocked bishops.
The ability to pardon people for their offences upholds a fundamental principle of Christian theology, the forgiveness of sins, Munro says.
Despite the public trials, Shearman's wife, Fay, and his children have stood beside him.
Unhappily, Munro says, soon after the tribunal hearing Shearman's wife wrote a public letter lamenting that after "a lifetime of service to Our Lord and His church, we no longer want to remain members of the Anglican Church of Australia".
In response to a letter from one of Heinrich's supporters, the Anglican Primate of Australia, Dr Phillip Aspinall, has defended Munro's right to express "his personal view, as indeed each one of us has" but added: "The gravest injustice occurred when a priest sexually assaulted a 14-year-old child. Surely no one in the year 2006 would say this is acceptable. That was the decision of the diocesan tribunal. I acted on its clear finding and recommendation."
Shearman maintains his silence on the case. He has disputed the church's apology and has said there are inaccuracies in Heinrich's version of events but has refused to elaborate and declined to be interview by the Herald.
Approaching his 81st year, he remains active in his local Queensland parish and says he has been heartened by support from within and outside his church community.
Briggs ponders the psychology of Shearman. "He is the interesting person. He was writing to her every day. What was driving him? I think it must be more than an unhappy marriage. Was he in love with romance, for example, because those letters were some of the most convincing love letters I have seen. Of course, he did leave his wife to marry her but it was the intervention of the church that stopped it and one senses that had it not intervened they could have lived happily ever after."
Far from putting the past behind her Heinrich is considering writing about it and is seeking a publisher.
"Perhaps I like turning the screws. I need a publisher, I want people to understand how he was able to get into my head and obviously didn't mean anything by it. It's an explanation for some people and a warning for other people."
One of Heinrich's supporters is Lindy Reid, whose mother was a victim of sexual abuse as a child.
Prompted by the screening of Australian Story, she contacted Heinrich and has found in her quiet "fellowship", although the pair met only recently. A year ago Reid approached the NSW Government to revoke Shearman's Order of British Empire.
"Survivors help other survivors to heal. I admire Beth for her courage and her refusal to give in or give up," Reid says. "She is an inspiring role model for survivors of child sex abuse and I think this is very important, especially for those who are so damaged they are not able to pursue restorative justice. I hope that Beth's story will encourage others to seek support for their healing."
Does Heinrich go to church?
"Heaven forbid, no. I wouldn't trust any of them," she says. "I think the church is too full of hypocrisy. If I had been handled in the way Christ said victims should be handled, none of the ensuing 11 years [after the mediation with Hollingworth] would have happened. Didn't Christ say suffer the little children to come to me? They chose to close ranks and blame the victim."
What does she believe in these days?
"The earth mother. I say it flippantly, but it's the goodness in people, and if you find you are unlucky in life then that is just too bad."
HISTORY OF A BETRAYAL AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
1954 Beth Heinrich starts boarding at St John's Hostel, Forbes.
1955 Sexual relationship starts between 29-year-old Donald Shearman and Heinrich, 14.
1956 Shearman expels Heinrich from hostel.
1958 Start of an unhappy and violent marriage.
1977 Shearman visits Forbes and arranges to meet Heinrich, 21 years after last seeing her. An on-again, off-again relationship starts.
1984 Shearman leaves Grafton, his wife and his post as bishop to live in Wagga with Heinrich. He returns to his wife 12 days later. Heinrich later miscarries his child.
1994 Heinrich first complains about Shearman to the Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth.
1995 Hollingworth organises a mediation with himself, Heinrich and Shearman. Shearman refuses to sign a letter of apology. Hollingworth rules that Shearman should continue preaching.
2001 Hollingworth appointed governor-general.
February 18, 2002 Hollingworth appears on Australian Story.
February 19, 2002 Archbishop Phillip Aspinall announces an inquiry into sex abuse allegations against the church in Brisbane. He apologises to victims.
March 1, 2002 Hollingworth "unreservedly apologises" for claiming he did not believe Heinrich was abused as a 14-year-old.
2003 Hollingworth resigns after inquiry finds he acted unfairly in dealing with some complaints of sexual abuse and let a known pedophile continue as a priest.
2004 Shearman stripped of his holy orders.
August 2006 The church issues a formal apology to Heinrich, paying her $100,000 in compensation.
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