Catholic Community Shuts after Archbishop's Apology

The West Australian

July 9 2008

A controversial Catholic community will close down in the wake of an apology by Perth's Archbishop over his handling of allegations against it, some involving sexual impropriety.

The Bethel Covenant Community, a lay Catholic organisation in Perth, said today recent misconduct and longer term structural, cultural and behavioural issues made its existence unjustifiable.

Catholic community shuts after Archbishop's apology

"We deeply regret that the original genuine Christian mission of the community has been subverted by certain actions and activities that the remaining members of the community find totally unacceptable and do not condone," Bethel interim chairman Rob Crothers said on its website.

The closure of the community comes just days before the Pope's visit to Australia, and amid pressure on the Catholic church's senior figure in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, over his handling of sex abuse claims.

The Bethel Covenant Community has been the subject this year of allegations of sexual impropriety, financial irregularities and "cult-like" activities.

Among its controversial practices, members were strongly discouraged from seeking sexual or romantic partners outside the group, were subject to excessive leadership styles and, allegedly, to sexual misconduct.

In a recent complaint about sexual misconduct, a woman said she raised her top in defiance of a leader's continued interest in her breasts.

The leader named in the complaint, and after other complaints of a sexual nature, has since stood down from the organisation.

The allegations yesterday drew an extraordinary apology from Perth's Archbishop Barry Hickey, who admitted he had responded "inadequately" to issues raised with him in 2000, but which also date back to 1994.

He said recent publicity had revealed some people were still suffering from experiences they had while members of the community.

"I deeply regret that and I am sorry for any part I might have played in it," Archbishop Hickey said.

"Those who brought me their assessment of the situation in 2000 were entitled to expect that I would investigate their concerns more fully.

"On reflection, it is clear to me that I could have done much more for the Bethel people than I did. For this I apologise."

Archbishop Hickey denied any deceit by him or by Auxiliary Bishop Don Sproxton, who earlier this year heard complaints about sexual misconduct which led in March to the resignation of the community's leader.

He said a review of the community in 1994 had raised complaints about the leader's style of management, the excessive control of members and inadequate reporting on finances.

Archbishop Hickey said in the years before 2000 he had had "extensive contact" with Bethel leaders over controversial practices such as restrictions on who members dated, and on guidance by the leader to married couples about intimate sexual matters.

But he said the review in 1994 was mainly about the style of management, the dating policy, and spiritual direction - not about sexual complaints.

Bethel leaders had also strongly defended their practices, he said.

A spokesman for Archbishop Hickey said today the community's decision was one only it could make, but he agreed with it. West Australian police say none of the recent complaints have led to any charges.

The Bethel community says its net assets will be transferred to other charitable organisations.


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