Inside Story

Powerful perpetrators

Anne Manne illuminates Newcastle’s web of child-abuse perpetrators, enablers and bystanders

Denis Muller Books 3 July 2024 1922 words

“The fox guarding the henhouse”: the former Anglican dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence, arrives at the Newcastle District Court for sentencing on 17 October 2019. Darren Pateman/AAP Image

In his imaginative masterpiece Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie writes of the “futility of statistics”: how large numbers “refuse to be understood.” So when we read that there were 4444 cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and more than 1000 by Anglican clergy it is impossible to grasp the horrors involved in any individual child’s case. In her new book, Crimes of the Cross, Anne Manne breaks through this cognitive barrier by focusing largely on the experiences of one person, Steven Smith. In doing so, she forces us to confront the raw facts of sexual abuse.

In spare, unadorned prose, she describes how the violations of ten-year-old Steven by an Anglican priest in Newcastle, George Parker, become steadily more severe, painful and degrading. Imprisoned by the secrecy Parker bullies him into, Steven finds himself having to wash blood, excrement and semen off his underpants in a creek near home lest his parents discover what is going on. He is particularly anxious that his mother should not find out, not just because of the threatened consequences for himself but because he fears it will destroy her to learn she has been betrayed by the faith that is central to her life.

Manne also describes the social, financial and political structures of the Anglican church in Newcastle that empowered and protected its abusive priests for decades while the lives of their victims unravelled and too often spiralled into suicide.

Steven Smith’s story did not end like that. In fact his story goes on still, a living testament to his character. He showed an inner steel that would not bend under the emotional, psychological and material pressures that broke so many others. He also showed astonishing compassion. Roger Herft, one of the many bishops of Newcastle who did nothing to report these crimes to the police, was eviscerated at the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. As he emerged from the commission a broken man, Steven went up and laid a comforting hand on his arm.

It is Steven’s resilience and character that provide the central redemptive theme of the book.

There are precious few of these redemptive themes, but there are some. One is Steven’s finding in his wife Rachel a human soul capable of deep empathy, wisdom and unwavering support. Another is the belated entry into the case of a tough and experienced police officer, Detective Inspector Jeff Little. A third is the work of the royal commission, and a fourth is the eventual conviction and imprisonment of Graeme Lawrence, once the all-powerful dean of the Newcastle diocese and leader of a ring of paedophile priests. His influence was the driving force behind a culture within the diocese that enabled and emboldened priests like Parker.

Before these redemptive themes emerge, however, the story of Parker’s five-year reign of terror over Steven and his younger brother is told in detail. Manne allows the facts to speak for themselves, and this gives the book a particular potency and credibility.

We learn about the first ten years of Steven Smith’s life. It is a carefree childhood at the centre of which is the family’s close connection to the local Anglican church. But it is a childhood unfolding under the shadow of marital disharmony. His mother, Margery, is especially devout and harbours an ambition that Steven, thought to be her favourite, should become an Anglican priest.

Then a long-serving parish priest, admired and trusted by the men as well as the women of the parish, moves on and in his place comes George Parker. With his long hair, guitar and Volkswagen beetle, he typified a breed of “cool” younger priests who emerged in the Anglican and Catholic churches of the 1970s.

To young churchgoers of the time, among whom I was one, they were a breath of fresh air after the often grim and emotionally desiccated generation who had preceded them, and they went out of their way to try to make the church “relevant” to youth. The men of Steven Smith’s family — his father and grandfather in particular — took an instant dislike to Parker: they didn’t trust him. But Steven’s devout mother was entranced, as were other women of the parish.

So the grooming began. Parker’s Volkswagen was often to be seen outside the family home in the absence of the men. Later Steven came to suspect there might have been a relationship between the priest and his mother. However that may have been, Margery was only too happy to see Father Parker take a particular interest in her son, inviting him to help with chores around the vicarage and taking him on car trips to outlying churches of the parish to assist at services there.

It was in the vestry of one of these churches that the first sexual assault took place and the pattern of depravity and intimidation was established. This ten-year-old boy is told he has been sent to the priest by God, but that what occurs between them must remain a deep secret. If Steve speaks, he is warned, no one will believe him and there will be consequences.

For five formative years of Steven’s life, Parker preys upon him. There is no escape, no telling when the next assault will happen, and these predations quickly change Steven’s life. His schoolwork declines, he doesn’t complete Year 11, and he is afflicted with the symptoms of trauma: constant anxiety, panic, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance and susceptibility to being triggered. In his late teens and early twenties, afflicted with the need to obliterate these symptoms, he turns to alcohol. He becomes suicidal and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

It is a self-destructive path now familiar to us through the work of the royal commission and of journalists, notably Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald, whose “Shine the Light” campaign helped bring the commission into existence. The commission revealed the abuse of power, not just by individual paedophile priests but by the entire superstructure of the churches, which was central to their ability to cover up these crimes for decades. This too is a major theme of Manne’s book.

After Steven had complained to the police about Parker, the Anglican diocese of Newcastle lied to and obstructed the investigation at every turn. Combined with some plodding police work and blatant judicial bias, this lying and obstruction led to the charges against Parker being dismissed. The now-deceased presiding judge went so far as to say that the case against Parker was an abuse of process.

The Anglican church in Newcastle was not just a power in its own right: it was part of a network of powerful people and institutions. Manne writes that every dark network of paedophiles is protected by a “grey network” of influential people, and such was the case in that city.

In 2005, a newly installed bishop, Brian Farrar, confronts the culture of cover-up that has become embedded over several decades. He adopts a new professional standards ordinance and an associated code of conduct that specifically forbids clergy to sexually abuse a child. The ordinance makes it clear that the bishop is obliged to report child sexual abuse to the police. Farrar also appoints outsiders to key positions of management and this results in the hiring of a former policeman, Michael Elliott, as the director of professional standards.

For having the temerity to tackle this evil, Farrar comes under sustained attack from within the church and from the “grey network” in Newcastle. In late 2009 this attack reaches its greatest intensity when, after a report from Elliott that the dean, Graeme Lawrence, had committed sexual misconduct with a boy in the early 1980s, Farrar suspends Lawrence and three other priests for sexual misconduct.

Lawrence, as Manne puts it, was the fox guarding the henhouse. His position on several key committees enabled him not just to wield the power that had intimidated several bishops but also to run a cover-up operation for paedophile priests. His suspension created a schism in the parish and generated complaints against Farrar in the high councils of the church.

Even the primate, the head of the church in Australia, Phillip Aspinall, advised Farrar to get out from under the pressure. “They’re not going to give you an easy time. It’s certainly hard for you. It might be better if you retired.” Farrar wavered but did not quit. He went ahead and defrocked Lawrence. A decade later, in October 2019, Lawrence was convicted of raping a fifteen-year-old boy in his deanery in 1991. He was sentenced to eight years’ jail.

When Farrar did retire he was succeeded by Greg Thompson, himself the victim of sexual abuse. Just like Farrar, he continued the clean-out and, just like Farrar, he was subjected to a sustained, well-funded attack by a group calling themselves the “Senior Professionals of Newcastle,” some of whom held positions as advisers to the diocese. They wrote to the Church’s Episcopal Standards Commission, to the archbishop of Sydney, to the primate and even to the royal commission, claiming Thompson was mentally ill, perhaps as a result of his childhood abuse. Thompson faced them down.

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Little had been going after George Parker for his crimes against Steven Smith. In December 2016 he reinstated the charges dismissed in the previous tainted proceedings and added twenty more. It was forty-two years since the assaults began and this lapse of time was to rob Steven of justice. In early 2017, just before the committal proceedings were to start, Parker died. Little had seen him shortly beforehand and had given him the chance to confess. Parker refused.

How is it that influential members of a church community can be so wilfully blind to the possibility that their priests are capable of evil? How is it that a church hierarchy can be so cowed by attempts to kill off actions by a bishop to punish paedophiles? Manne devotes considerable attention to these questions. Her book, she tells us, is all about the denial of what “ostensibly good men” do. She explores the underlying psychological, social and cultural factors that contribute to the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

Among these factors is narcissism, demonstrated by a self-centred entitlement founded on the priest’s idea of himself as superior to other human beings. It is the product of a culture of clericalism that was rampant not only in the Newcastle diocese but also throughout the Anglican and Catholic churches for decades in the middle of the twentieth century. Clericalism holds that when a person is ordained, he or she is elevated to a higher plane of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment than other beings. This protects them from suspicion and places them in a position of power magnified by the power of the hierarchy and of the church itself.

Another factor is the perverse interpretation some Catholic and Anglo-Catholic priests place on the concept of celibacy. Grounded in the misogynistic doctrines that begin with the fall of Adam at the hands of Eve, this interpretation states that celibacy means forgoing sex with women but not with others, including children.

The consequent betrayal of trust, the abuse of power, the hypocrisy and the bestial cruelty need to be faced and understood. The great contribution of this book is that it offers us the opportunity to do just that. •

Crimes of the Cross: The Anglican Paedophile Network of Newcastle, Its Protectors and the Man Who Fought for Justice
Anne Manne | Black Inc. | $36.99 | 326 pages