Vigilante Xenophon's name shame


Sexual offenders among clergy and church workers have often used their privileged status to act as though they were above the law, and to ignore general standards of what is just and fair. Senator Nick Xenophon has acted in a way that is, ironically, all too similar.

By using parliamentary privilege to name an alleged perpetrator identified by one-time Roman Catholic priest and schismatic Anglican leader John Hepworth, even against Hepworth's expressed wishes, Xenophon has stepped across a line from the independence of spirit that has won him many admirers on questions of systemic gambling and corruption, into a new territory of irresponsibility.

It may be tempting for those concerned with justice for victims and for the ongoing protection of the vulnerable to sympathise with vigilantism, especially when Church processes and other means for seeking remedy are slow, or produce results difficult to understand. There are still too many indications that authorities in the Roman Catholic Church — but also in other religious communities including Anglicanism — have often been slow to act, and compromised by self-interest.

The recent stories that have emerged in Ireland are the latest in an ongoing tide of revelations which may continue for some time yet, even if important steps are being taken by Church and civil authorities in many places. The need for truth, openness and healing and justice for victims is not yesterday's issue.

Part of what is needed however is a system of dealing with abuse claims that can stand tests more substantial than those proposed in moments of outrage and despair. To act as though the accused are already guilty, and to 'out' or otherwise shame or cast public blame without the safeguards of proper process, makes the real or alleged abusers into scapegoats rather than objects of justice.

A bishop or tribunal that overlooks general principles of fairness when dealing with allegations only leaves their actions open to challenge, and thus weakens the potential of the system to defend others. Zeal for the abused without commensurate fairness for the accused has been claimed in a case currently before the Supreme Court in New South Wales, where actions by an Anglican tribunal in Newcastle are being scrutinised. Its outcome will have implications beyond the particular case, potentially casting shadows across other similar processes and their outcomes.

So accused abusers deserve justice, positively as well as negatively; they should be subject to appropriate sanctions if and when their alleged actions are established, but must also have their own rights respected in the course of the facts being assessed, and when consequences are determined.

The facts in these cases are usually not accessible to most of us — and in Hepworth's, probably not to anyone except him and those against whom he has made allegations. Respect for those who may have undergone such harrowing experiences demands that particular construals of those facts not become mere tools in the service of other agendas.

The Australian's Christopher Pearson implied this week that the different outcomes of processes regarding Hepworth's claims in the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Adelaide could be attributed to the administration of the Adelaide Archdiocese being the 'most liberal' in the country (a bit like calling The Australian the most liberal of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers), and that the difference was related to Hepworth's band of conservative ex-Anglicans somehow representing a threat to Catholic liberals.

This was an unedifying if not unexpected use of Hepworth and his story as a cudgel in ecclesiastical politics. The responses made by the Adelaide Archdiocese to Xenophon's threat have suggested not lack of attention or care regarding Hepworth's story, but rather a very difficult and continuing case, involving claim and counter-claim made at many years' distance.

But at least Hepworth sought Pearson's attention and dubious advocacy. Xenophon's actions on Tuesday cannot be excused on such grounds.

Hepworth is not an ecclesiastical faction, nor a cause célèbre to be paraded in Parliament, but a fragile human being whose history has now been scrutinised in ways, and to an extent, that demonstrate scant regard for his own humanity. So too, the man he has accused has been unfairly treated under the guise of privilege.

In the process, the slow progress of churches towards justice for the many who have been abused under the guise of spiritual authority and leadership has been set back. The accused also must also have their dignity acknowledged, not just for their own sake but for the sake of the abused too. 

Andrew McGowanAssociate Professor Andrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary

Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, Senator Nick Xenophon, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

Nevertheless this should be investigated too many clergy and religious get away with such actions. The process should be facilitated quickly. It is the victims who are psychology damaged lifelong. The perpetrator does not even think about the victims.

Bev Smith | 16 September 2011  

Andrew thanks for a thoughtful article. Nonetheless, I support Senator Xenophon's naming of the Catholic Priest in the Senate. The church's processes are in conflict. 'Towards Healing’ is administered by the Professional Standards Offices which is funded by the Catholic Church Insurances Limited (CCI). And two members of CCI are on the compensation Board of 'Towards Healing'. When a complaint is delayed or not taken seriously as has been documented in too many Victorian clergy sex - church coverup cases , alternative drastic action is at times needed. The call by Ann Barker MP Oakleigh for a Victorian Parliamentary enquiry is tortuous and lengthy. Such unfortunate delays and experiences are documented in Chrissi Foster’s book 'Hell on the way to Heaven' with Cardinal George Pell pp 130 - 196, Bishop Hilton Deakin p 245 and Archbishop Frank Little p 265. Perhaps Senator Xenophon should have asked the Speaker to set up a Senate Inquiry into Clerical Sex abuse and Church cover up as was done in Ireland but how long and what distracting battles would end up no where. Father Kevin Dillon of St Mary'a Geelong has called for reforms such as scrapping the controversial Melbourne Response process and be replaced with a "transparent and independent" process outside the control of the Pell Process and 'Towards Healing’ that is administered by the Professional Standards Offices and funded by the Catholic Church Insurances Limited. A time comes when it is necessary to break the deadlock, and rarely is the time or case ideal to do this. I believe the time had come for Senator Xenophon to act as did the Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Ireland

Michael Parer | 16 September 2011  

With friends like Nick Xenophon, who needs enemies. With friends like John Hepworth, who needs enemies. With friends like Ian Dempsey, well who is the real Ian Dempsey and will we ever find out? Since when could the media reveal the deepest secrets of our hearts? On September 11th at my church we heard a bishop, a real Anglican bishop unlike John Hepworth, who preached for fifteen minutes solid on forgiveness. We were told that forgiveness is learnt through an entire lifetime and we have to be prepared to forgive right up until our deaths. Unless you forgive you can’t receive forgiveness. It reminded me of William Blake: ‘The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.’ And the biggest test is with our worst enemies. I hear what Andrew is saying about not pre-judging this unfolding situation, but the reported evidence leads to the unavoidable conclusion that John Hepworth is a man who carries grudges and grievances over protracted periods of time. That many of us continue to carry around grievances going back decades is proof of what the bishop is asking for, with forgiveness. Even bishops and monsignors need to spend a lifetime at forgiveness. Even self-righteous senators with their own agendas, even coodabeen bishops are being asked the same. Even your sinful correspondent could be doing some more work in this area.

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 September 2011  

I agree that Xenophon has crossed a highly significant line in naming the priest. Watching the linked news item again, I notice that he stated that the priest had raped Hepworth and in so doing he used the language of judgment -- no qualifications like alleged -- he crossed another line ie acting as judge and jury. Having witnessed the life destruction and anguish of a case of his word against hers, I know that due process, detailed investigation, is essential for a just result. Those who have endured similar allegations where witnesses and evidence are not possible, and where allegations have been taken to the courts as a competition between personal credibility and legal expertise, would have applauded Xenophon if he had, in the first instance, publicised slow or inadequate due process whether civil or ecclesiastical. He could then have assessed the outcome and made further decisions accordingly. This is truly tragic for both men involved and I believe that Xenophon will find that he has undermined his own credibility

Jane | 16 September 2011  

It seems to me that the primary issue is accountability, but also pertinent is Philip Harvey’s words on forgiveness.
Rather than focus on the issue of justice and fairness in naming the perpetrator in parliament, I consider that Nick Xenophon matched the Catholic Church ethos: that it is above the law and therefore not accountable to any but itself.
Andrew McGowan has it in the first paragraph: clergy can abuse because of their perceived privileged position within an institution that has its own agenda at heart, and the protection of its own canon law.

In a television interview John Hepworth alluded to the fact that there is a culture within the seminary that ‘it’s ok to abuse the innocence of young boys’. I suspect that this is why some like minded men are attracted to the priesthood.

The Church has a propensity for secrecy which contributes to a form of elitism and so priests are given titles and a form of dress that is not sanctioned by Christ in Scripture. This distorted sense of entitlement is what has to change because it is detrimental to the welfare of innocent victims who have no such power.
Until the Church can let go of its distorted power there can be no true repentance and forgiveness for the untold harm done by some clergy.
We all pray that the Church will change the way it thinks about its authority and the way it relates to society. After all we are all one in Christ and our faith is built upon life-giving relationships with each other rather than justification and canon law.

Trish Martin | 16 September 2011  

While I agree with Andrew that the Senator has gone too far, I think I understand the context in which Xenophon made that decision. While the Church is now saying that it will deal properly and promptly with allegations, its history gives little reason to be confident that it will deliver on that undertaking. If the current processes are also compromised, as Michael has suggested, then there is even more reason for people to doubt. When will the church come to understand that self-regulation hasn't worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future and, in any case, has no credibility with the community generally, and instead promptly report all allegations of criminal behaviour to the Police and cooperate fully in any subsequent investigation?

Ginger Meggs | 16 September 2011  

Michael Paper steals some of my thunder. Senator Zenophon should be supported not vilified for his firm stand.

Victims and advocacy groups are continually shocked by the now automatic reaction of church leaders (a) protect the 'god name' of the church and its assets above all; (b) subject the victim to a one-sided process that further demeans and traumatises them (c) procrastinate and obfuscate in the hope that the powerless will give up and "get on with their lives" (d) finally, when called to account, proclaim the church's "absolute commitment" to a fair and just process but declaring the investigation complex and difficult.

Like the people of Ireland, we in Australia have run out of patience with a church which shows more compassion for the perpetrators than for their victims.

Frank Golding | 16 September 2011  

Senator Xenophon's use of parliamentary privilege in the John Hepworth matter is regretable.

In 1992 I reported to the NSW Police a series of indecent assaults on me by a Marist brother in a Catholic boys' home in 1962. The brother was eventually interviewed, once he had returned from his removal overseas, and a minimum of charges was laid. The brother pleaded guilty and was duly sentenced (lightly, I thought, but I didn't protest).

Had the police not acted, I threatened a private criminal action (about which I knew little, but the term) and was preparing a civil action because of the Marist order's refusal to give an adequate apology. The civil action began, but I was not granted an extension of time for it to be heard. My name was reported in relation to the criminal and civil cases as I have no truck with anonymity.

The path I took is, I believe, what John Hepworth should have taken. I was telling the truth and, even if the police had not acted, there were other paths for the allegations to be reviewed and assessed, legally or through the Church protocols.

Senator Xenophon's use of parliamentary privilege has now effectively precluded the criminal law ever testing the allegations because of prejudice to the person he named.

Rodney Stinson | 16 September 2011  

The Xenophon 'naming' episode highlights the hysteria around sexual abuse within the Church that leads to people wanting to circumvent due process of law which protects the innocent, whoever they may be: the "accused" or the "victim". Who is innocent has to be ascertained by a court of law, not by the 'courts' of public opinion or personal vendetta. Hundreds of cases of sexual abuse throughout Australian society emerge every day, but the people involved have never been named in the parliament with the focus and energy of Nick Xenophon in this particular instance. Ian Dempsey deserves the honoured processes of Australian Law: 'innocent until proven otherwise.'

As a church worker, I have seen an increasing number of spurious cases justly dismissed in a court of law,and not just because of a lack of sufficient evidence to convict. John Hepworth should have gone to the police, for Ian Dempsey has a right to appeal civil law as well as canon law in his defense. I have found that canon law processes often, sadly, lack the precision and protection of human rights that are offered in the processes of civil law. Nick Xenophon is a vigilante whose 'targets' are often worthy of his attention, but in this case he has abused parliamentary privilege to be 'police investigator, judge and jury' in a kangaroo court.

Chris | 16 September 2011  

For all those justifying Xenophon's illegal action on the basis of protecting the victim, the rape victim in this case asked for the alleged perpetrator not to be named.
That was ignored. On this basis alone, Xenophon's actions constitute an abuse just as grave as any act of rape.

AURELIUS | 16 September 2011  

Xenophon used Parl privilege in the same way the church has used the privilege of Canon Law. Archbishop Wilson did nothing in Wollongong re victims of priestly paedophilia and he obviously has done nothing in this instance instead of protest. The matter should automatically have been handed over to the police by Wilson. Good on Sen Xenophon. He did what the Church didn't do!

Shirley McHugh | 16 September 2011  

For all those justifying Xenophon's illegal action on the basis of protecting the victim, the rape victim in this case asked for the alleged perpetrator not to be named. That was ignored. On this basis alone, Xenophon's actions constitute an abuse just as grave as any act of rape.

AURELIUS | 16 September 2011  

Sad! There is so much more that is not revealed in this saga - and we now have two men, John Hepworth and Ian Dempsey who need support. Nothing proven. No court. Just Nick Xenophon. No need to use names - if he has an issue with the Church, then keep at the organisation but leave individual names until there is proof. The Church I believe has tried to deal with the issue but has not been able to get John Hepworth to formalise his complaint and place it in the hands of the police which is where it should have been. Kangaroo Courts should not decide who is to be named and who is not in our land. Xenophon has lost lots of credibility in hiding behind parliamentary privilege. What if he is wrong? What if there is another side to the story? Would Mr Xenophon then be up for defamation? Dangerous, tragic territory!

Jane | 16 September 2011  

4 years is too long-I applaud Xenophons' naming & deplore the continuing cover-ups of certain religions in refusing to do justice to victims damaged perhaps years ago by members of their churches.

Doreen Low | 16 September 2011  

It is always troublesome to compare one sin for another; one abuse for another; or one crime for another. For Aurelius to equate Xenophon's "alleged" abuse of parliamentary privilege in the Hepworth case with 'any act of rape' shows ignorance of the trauma of being raped.

Uncle Pat | 16 September 2011  

Look, it's all about justice isn't it?! So Nick might have overstepped the line in this instance. So be it. Parliament is also about justice, and that's one reason why parliamentary privilege exists. He's done the right thing.

LouW | 16 September 2011  

Excellent summimg up of the disturbing aspects of the Senator's actions.

John Ahern | 16 September 2011  

Moving off on a slightly different angle. Are you in a position to inform us better about Hepworth--is he a Bishop-Anglicans don't seem to want to recognise him--at the same time he seems to be playing apolitical game between some Catholic Bishops/Cardinal which he perceives will lead him & his followers to an independent communion within the Catholic church. is it a fact that he needs to present himself as "cleanskin' to achieve this ??

Brian | 16 September 2011  

On further thought, maybe with the advent of Viagra et al, there's a more urgent need to defend the community from potential sex offender - however elderly they may be.

AURELIUS | 16 September 2011  

Who needs a police, a court, a judge or a jury if we have Nick Xenophon!

Beat Odermatt | 16 September 2011  

The use and abuse of parliamentary privilege is a subject deserving of some 'outing' of its own. Xenophon had nothing new to add, by all accounts, except a name. That is, he broke a standard rule of contempt that any cub reporter knows protects our system of justice and, its lynchpin, the separation of powers. The senator showed contempt for the principles of natural justice. If he had evidence of wrongdoing that has not been available to the proper authorities, he should have handed it over. His act smacks of opportunism and publicity-seeking. Some radio shock jocks and others think pedophilia and offences by the clergy fall into a special category that justifies vigilantism. The are no 'special' offences that justify tearing down the protections that protect us all. We would wish our politicians were agreed on that much, at least. Obviously not -- even when the alleged accused has asked not to have the priest named, for the damage it might do to his claims for redress. He was right in that. Pity that the big-headed senator showed contempt for the alleged victim's situation too. The issues of past crimes and abuses by clergy and the responses of church authorities to them deserve a proper airing and a speedy program of reform. Abuse of authority, which lies at the heart of these issues, also lies squarely before the public in the abuse of parliamentary privilege.

Walter Hamilton | 16 September 2011  

Who needs a police, a court, a judge or a jury if we have Nick Xenophon!

Beat Odermatt | 16 September 2011  

obviously people don't tend to sympathize victims - I'd like to say that way if I may generalize. that's why abuse has not stopped.

4 years have passed and investigation has been nowhere, why? that was the point why Xenophon had to use his position. does anybody have faith that the case would be investigated in the next 4 years?

I believe the society must stand by the victims to stop the bad guys - whoever they are. I also believe only those who have no faith in their religion do such crimes. If they do have faith, then they simply don't value their own faith! no wonder they don't value others.

AZURE | 16 September 2011  

Have any of the commentators on this blog who are critical of the church read the statement issued by the Archbishop of Adelaide before they accused the church of being too slow or too unwilling to investigate the allegations? If they had, they would have found there a detailed description of the steps the church took from the time the accusation was made to it.

Those facts show that the delay lies at the feet of John Hepworth because despite numerous attempts by the church to commence the process - which, of course, needed Hepworth's concurrence and involvement - he wasn't willing for it to commence. Remember, too, the church advised him on several occasions to go to the police, which he would not do. Why, we might ask, would he not allow the investigation to go ahead and would not go to the police?

The issue here is not about the church being slow or unwilling to act - even if that might be the case in other situations. it is not the case here. Senator Xenophon should have checked all the facts, and the history, more carefully before abusing parliamentary privilege.

Chris Roper | 18 September 2011  

the accused in this case should welcome an enquiry to clear his name and so should all promoters of justice

frank hetherton | 18 September 2011  

Hello Shirley For your information: 1. The Church must wait for due process of the law of the land BEFORE it can act (under its own Canon Law, the Church has no authority to displace / preclude / circumvent the laws of the land). 2. When the accused is actually found to be guilty before the law (despite legal defence), only THEN can the Church take action under Canon Law and “sack” the accused.

AD | 19 September 2011

What exactly is John Hepworth’s relationship to the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches? What is his relationship to the people in his own church? Why did he take the political path and speak to Nick Xenophon, only then to say he didn’t want any naming of names in the Senate? Why, when this thing suddenly goes exponential in the Australian media (and why would that be?), he then permits full-page personal interviews in which to disclose some of the worst experiences of his life? This includes naming names and giving his side of some fairly murky stories.

The term cause celebre is used in Andrew’s compassionate article, which was written before Saturday’s interview in The Age and I agree we do well to avoid treating people in this way, but John Hepworth would seem to be using this interview actually to turn himself into a cause celebre. Are we witnessing someone with a martyr complex?

One of my deepest concerns in this business is that John Hepworth is meant to be the leader of a church. What kind of leader agrees to the contents of this interview being published nationally and internationally? What do the people he is leading make of all this business? Indeed, at every turn here we come up against the issue of leadership (or lack of it) in church, society, and the Parliament. Will the same leaders resolve this situation publicly in the way they created it in the first place? Or will it all go under the carpet? I have always liked Albert Einstein’s dictum: “The person who creates the problem is not the person who will solve it.” Solomon sits between that and another Einstein saying: “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”

PHILIP HARVEY | 19 September 2011  

I believe everyone must have the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This account of Archbishop Hepworth's past alleged assaults on his person are horrendous. The statements in relation to his attempts to inform the Rector of the day at his Seminary of the alleged abuse & then later his effort to tell his then Bishop of the day about his abuse, and both these men not responding in a compassionate and just way are even greater crimes of neglect of their pastoral obligations.

This led to Archbishop Hepworth in his own words "running away" to England. This whole tragic story is so exposing of all concerned I trust justice is now done for all concerned. (information from interviews with Bishop Hepworth both on ABC Radio & The Australian Newspaper).Margaret Coffey

margaret M.Coffey | 19 September 2011  

If you are looking for balanced and objective views on any Catholic church matter finding its way into "The Australian", you won't ever find it in the writings that masquerade as journalism of the likes of convert to Catholicism, Christopher Pearson, or Tess Livingtstone, the prolific biographer and blatant supporter of Cardinal George Pell. That said, the pulp media treatment of Monsignor Ian Dempsey is quite disgraceful and should lead to severe action against Senator Xenophon. This is not justice, nor is it what we usually understand as 'free speech'

Richard Flynn | 20 September 2011  

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