The Newcastle trial of Graeme Lawrence

The Monthly

Sept. 2019

By Anne Manne

The second most senior churchman in Australia to be found guilty of child sexual abuse
In the Newcastle District Court on July 26, the former dean of the Newcastle’s Anglican cathedral, Graeme Lawrence, was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault and aggravated sexual assault – termed rape in most Australian states – of a 15-year-old boy, Ben Giggins, in 1991. Following the guilty verdict, in a brave act, Giggins asked that the non-publication order concerning his name be lifted.

Lawrence is the second most senior churchman in Australia – after Cardinal George Pell – to be convicted of child sexual abuse. The role of dean is second to the bishop, but Lawrence’s influence was such that he was regarded as more powerful than all the bishops he served under. He dominated the Newcastle diocese from 1984 until 2008, when he retired. The charismatic priest was popular, especially among some of Newcastle’s most powerful citizens. Feted with honours, Lawrence was made a Freeman of the City of Newcastle, given a Newcastle Citizen of the Year award and an Order of Australia. He was a member of the elite Newcastle Club.

But Lawrence had a dark side. In December 2010 the church’s internal disciplinary committee unanimously recommended that Lawrence be deposed from holy orders for having sex with another young male parishioner during the early 1980s, beginning when the boy was 16 and under the age of consent. Lawrence and his partner, Greg Goyette, had group sex with the same parishioner when he was 17. This went on for a number of years. The scandal rocked Newcastle and divided the city. Many parishioners refused to believe their favourite preacher was guilty of wrongdoing. Lawrence’s supporters helped to fund his Supreme Court challenge to the defrocking. In 2012, it failed.

A battle emerged in Newcastle between a pro-perpetrator group and a pro-survivor group. Greg Thompson, bishop from 2014 to 2017, was vilified and ostracised for whistleblowing and disclosing his own abuse as a young man in the 1970s by bishop Ian Shevill. Thompson apologised publicly on June 17, 2015, to survivors in the diocese. In exposing the “culture of cover up” and “mates looking after mates”, which allowed up to 30 perpetrators to act unimpeded, Thompson told the Newcastle Herald that some senior Anglicans “had this sense of self-entitlement that meant they had sexual relations with children as if that was a part of the role”.

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