The Newcastle trial of Graeme Lawrence

By Anne Manne
September 23, 2019

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”.

Such behaviour made the Newcastle Anglican case one of the most terrible before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. At a hearing in 2016, Lawrence was exposed as central to that culture. One priest, Colvin Ford, described him as part of a “gang of three” who protected one of Australia’s most notorious ecclesiastical paedophiles, Peter Rushton, whose victims numbered in the hundreds. One survivor, Steven Smith, rang the church helpline twice in the 1990s to tell of his terrible experiences of being sexually abused by Father George Parker. Lawrence answered the phone. Cold and dismissive, he didn’t report it to police. The fox was guarding the henhouse.

This year’s criminal trial of Lawrence was hugely important. It got off to a rocky start: a day after the jury had been sworn in, a local ABC report referred to Lawrence in connection with the royal commission. The defence argued that this could prejudice the jury. The judge, Tim Gartelmann SC, agreed and the jury was discharged. It became a judge-only trial.

On June 19, the hearing recommenced. The Crown prosecutor, Craig Leggat SC, in quiet, measured tones, described a shocking crime. At some point in 1991, 15-year-old Ben Giggins was helping with the sound and lighting for a local band at a Newcastle cathedral youth event. Lawrence invited Giggins to his residence, the deanery, to “meet other youth” after the service. Giggins asked his mother, who was sitting in the cathedral, for her permission. She agreed – the dean was an important person in the diocese, and she thought there would be other kids present.

According to Judge Gartelmann’s summary, following the service Lawrence took Giggins on the short path from the cathedral to the deanery. As Lawrence unlocked the double front doors to the residence, Giggins became nervous. It was empty; no one else was there. Then Lawrence led him into a small room. On the walls were pictures of naked boys. Giggins froze. Lawrence asked him if he liked the pictures and Giggins said no. Then, in a sudden, swift movement, Lawrence grabbed Giggins’ shoulders and said, “Relax. It’s okay, relax” as he pulled Giggins’ T-shirt over his head and down, pinning his arms and obscuring his vision. Lawrence then forced him onto his hands and knees, pulled his pants down and again told Giggins to relax. He was shaking and scared. He could hear the sound of Lawrence’s belt being unbuckled and trousers falling to the ground. His clothes smelled of incense.

Lawrence then started to play with Giggins’ penis and testicles for about 10 to 15 seconds. He kept saying “relax” and “do you like that?” Giggins’ started to cry and said, “No, I don’t like it. Stop.” Then he felt the tip of Lawrence’s penis at his anus. Lawrence pushed down on his back then held onto his shoulders and armpits and penetrated him. Giggins felt pain and crept forward to try to get away, but Lawrence also moved forward and pushed in harder, penetrating him four times. Then there was “one forceful one”. At this point Giggins was able to put his T-shirt back on and pull his pants up. He rushed out the door. As Giggins ran, Lawrence said, “Don’t bother telling anyone. You’re just a boy and I’m the dean. No one will believe you.” Giggins told no one, not even his mother, who was patiently waiting for him in the cathedral. He told his mother he wanted to go home. In her evidence she described him as “angry”, “agitated” and “snappy” on the drive home. Once there, Giggins showered immediately and saw “blood in his underpants and in the water at the bottom of the shower”. “He washed himself but felt dirty no matter how much he did so. He still felt pain … and cried himself to sleep.” The next day, a school day as he recalled, he was still very sore.

Giggins stayed in the church, but kept close to others and away from the dean. On another occasion, Lawrence reminded him: “Don’t bother telling anyone – you know who I am.” Some years later Giggins was at a railway station with his mother when he saw Lawrence. According to his mum, Giggins suddenly went pale and froze.

When Giggins became a father, and as a consequence of the royal commission into child sexual abuse coming to Newcastle in 2016, he finally disclosed to his family and friends that he had been sexually abused by Lawrence. He went to the police. Detective Sergeant Jeff Little and Detective Senior Constable Chris Browne spent a year carefully investigating the allegations. On November 14, 2017, Lawrence was arrested and charged.

The defence’s strategy, led by Paul Winch, was straightforward – blanket denial. Lawrence had never met Giggins. He had never invited him to the deanery. He had never indecently or sexually assaulted him. There were no pictures of naked boys in his home. Lawrence was not living at the deanery at the time of the assaults. He had no reason to be at the railway station.

Central to the guilty verdict was Judge Gartelmann’s assessment of the relative credibility of Lawrence and Giggins. In his judgement he described Giggins’ evidence to have “the clear ring of truth”. Giggins, he said, was “calm, shy and quiet”, and despite obvious embarrassment over such an intimate crime, gave answers with a “high degree of credibility”, with “detail” and “subconscious physical movements” indicating “genuine” recollections of a traumatic assault. He did not seek to advance his own interests and acknowledged where he could not remember.

In contrast, Judge Gartelmann did not find Lawrence credible. He was “defiant” and “became particularly combative when tested”. Lawrence “demonstrated an intent not to concede matters against his own interests at the expense of truthfulness”. There were “inconsistencies” in his evidence. He denied ever meeting Giggins, but another bandmember, Dominic Eve, remembered Lawrence greeting Giggins using his full name “Benjamin” rather than Ben, which he thought was a “bit strange”. The incident stayed in his mind. In a police interview, Lawrence denied that youth bands ever played at the cathedral. Yet during cross-examination Judge Gartelmann said, “It was evident that the accused knew … that it was incorrect but sought to justify it as he perceived an interest in maintaining it was correct.”

My own observation watching Lawrence over the weeks of the trial was of an extraordinarily arrogant man, as if through sheer force of personality he could compel those listening to comply with his denial of wrongdoing. Lawrence constantly looked at the judge, as if appealing to him as a peer: we are the high-status men above these lowly people. He resorted to name-dropping. On the question of the pictures of naked boys in what he called “the ironing room”, he said scornfully, “And understand I could hardly have had the governor and governor-general or the premier of the state or John Howard with those etchings on the wall.” Prosecutor Leggat asked Lawrence, since John Howard became prime minister in 1996, what possible relevance did it have to 1991? Lawrence replied: “Merely to affirm and confirm I had no such materials on the wall.” Leggat responded, “You were prepared to make a self-serving statement.”

Lawrence’s grandiosity and penchant for self-­aggrandisement were frequently on display. He used the word “great” many times. As Leggat went through all the occasions displayed in the registry book when the youth band might have played – and therefore the offences might have occurred – Lawrence met his suggestions with withering scorn. “I can assure you I would have been deluged with complaints” if the humble youth band played, rather than the “great religious music” in the “great English tradition for a great occasion”. He spoke of “the great English composers like Purcell and Stanford … the great masters of music like Bach and Haydn”. On and on he went in his baritone voice, glasses perched on the end of his nose, his mouth turned down in a disapproving pleat as he insisted that the decidedly not-great youth band would never have played on any of these “great” occasions in the cathedral.

Leggat didn’t miss a beat: did Lawrence meet Giggins “after the less great services”?

The defence’s central argument was that the December 1989 Newcastle earthquake had so damaged the deanery that Lawrence was not living there at the time of the offences. Lawrence described the damage as “fairly catastrophic. A movement of walls, falling masonry, general destruction.” Indicating large gaps in walls, he flung his arms open about a metre wide, in a dramatic flourish. Lawrence claimed he and his partner were forced to move out straight away, taking all their furniture with them while the deanery was repaired. Under cross-examination, however, Lawrence admitted that a removalist’s receipt showed they actually moved out on April 30, 1991. As Judge Gartelmann noted in his summing up, it was hard to imagine living in a building as damaged as Lawrence described for a year and a half.

A witness called for the Crown, Brett Tilse, a builder who had done the repairs to the deanery, contradicted Lawrence, describing the damage only as “just bits and pieces throughout the building … none of this was total”. Moreover, Tilse remembered about 50 per cent of furniture and personal effects were left in. This was another “significant fact” because Giggins remembered a chair and a wardrobe in the room where the assault took place. A plan of the repairs showed that the room was not on the list of those needing work. Even if Lawrence wasn’t living there, an unoccupied deanery, Judge Gartelmann noted, “would have provided a convenient opportunity for sexual offences to be committed without risk of detection”.

Judge Gartelmann found Lawrence’s key witness, his long-time partner Greg Goyette, unreliable, with evidence of collusion between them. In contrast, he found Giggins’ mother, Jenny Canaway, to be credible and truthful. Canaway, a diminutive older woman with a gentle face and long white hair, clearly thought that playing in a band at the cathedral with other Anglican youth was a wholesome, safe activity for her son to be involved in.

Far from being safe, her boy was overpowered and brutally raped by Lawrence, in a brazen and well-choreographed attack, with his mother sitting in the cathedral only metres away. Lawrence displayed a breathtaking sense of entitlement and confidence that he would get away with it. And from 1991 until July 26, 2019, he did.

As a society we have puzzled over why so many senior clergy protected abusers and moved them on. This awful case shows that it wasn’t always simply about protecting the church’s reputation. In some instances, those responsible for the protection of the vulnerable were paedophiles themselves.

After Lawrence was found guilty, Lord Mayor of Newcastle Nuatali Nelmes immediately stripped Lawrence of his 1997 Citizen of the Year and Freeman of the City awards. Survivor Steven Smith has called for Lawrence’s Order of Australia – granted when he was an active sexual offender – to be revoked. Judge Gartelmann agreed to bail for Lawrence, so “he could prepare for a custodial sentence”. When sentencing takes place on September 27, Lawrence’s disgrace will be complete.


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